As the 2022 election dust slowly settles, it is appropriate that we Kenyans assess the impact of elections on our democracy from 1963 to the present. With its emphasis on elections, Western liberal democracy reigns almost supreme in many parts of the world today, Kenya included. Indeed, elections are usually referred to as “a democratic exercise” on the assumption that through them the citizenry get to determine who holds political office and thereby implements policies favoured by the citizenry. Indeed, many post-election analyses seem to proceed from the assumption that elections are the only way to identify leaders “democratically”, and that, in any case, it is not possible to find a better system for this purpose. Thus in 2017, Willy Mutunga, Kenya’s first Chief Justice under the Constitution of Kenya 2010, declared that Kenya was under electoral authoritarianism, and that “Kenya is a fake democracy where elections do not matter because the infrastructure of elections has been captured by the elites.” In the same year, Barbara Yoxon contended that Kenya is a case of a polity in which elections do not equal democracy. Like Mutunga and Yoxon, many others seem to hold that if only the electoral processes were streamlined, Kenya would automatically become a genuine democracy.
However, in what follows, I illustrate that in the Kenyan context, elections are a major obstacle to democracy understood as a governance system in which the people determine the direction of the management of public affairs.
The Western imperialist origins of elections in Kenya
Prior to the blight of Western imperialism, the various peoples of Africa had their own modes of governance that, in most if not all cases, took the views of the governed seriously. The various governance models of the peoples of Africa laid a high premium on consensus-building rather than majoritarianism, thus the absence of elections among them. Kwasi Wiredu writes about a monarchical democracy, free from elections, among the Akan of Ghana: “Contrary to a deliberately fostered appearance, the personal word of the chief was not law. His official word, on the other hand, is the consensus of his council, and it is only in this capacity that it may be law; which is why the Akans have the saying that there are no bad kings, only bad councilors”. Wiredu further notes that the Akan choose their leaders by consensus: “There is never an act of formal voting. Indeed, there is no long-standing word for voting in the language of the Ashantis. The expression which is currently used for that process (aba to) is an obvious modern coinage for a modern cultural import or, shall we say, imposition”.
Similarly, in his chapter in A Companion to African Philosophy, Edward Wamala notes that the Baganda had a consensual monarchical democracy, where neither the king nor anybody else had veto power: “The quest for consensus was carried on at the highest level of governance as well as all the various levels in the structure of society down to the level of the household.” Furthermore, “If after due deliberations the council reached a consensus, it was taboo for the monarch to oppose or reject it.”
My own people, the Luo of Kenya, had a decentralised kinship-based system of governance that laid great emphasis on deliberation and consensus building rather than majoritarianism. Indeed, the Luo refer to government as piny owacho, literally “the community has spoken”, evoking the idea that the laws of the land are based on the will of the people. In my recently published edited volume, Africa beyond Liberal Democracy: In Search of Context-Relevant Models of Democracy for the Twenty-First Century, Odoch Pido notes that among the Acholi of Uganda (one of the cultural cousins of the Luo of Kenya), “Decisions were not reached by voting, but rather by consensus among the elders, …. As long as one elder did not agree, discussions continued until consensus was reached. To act against the will of one person, they said, balo laa (‘damages the spittle’), referring to the saliva used in ceremonial contexts to pronounce requisite blessings.” In the same volume, Tayo Eegunlusi notes that through their acephalous political system, the Igbo of Nigeria operated on the basis of strong consensus in decision-making.
The Luo refer to government as piny owacho, literally “the community has spoken”, evoking the idea that the laws of the land are based on the will of the people.
The foregoing examples of our indigenous systems of governance confirm that our peoples acknowledged the importance of the consent of the governed—the very issue that the West often touts as its own unique innovation and proudly associates with their contrived term, “democracy”. Thus in Models of Democracy, David Held gives the following elementary definition of democracy:
“While the word ‘democracy’ came into English in the sixteenth century from the French democratie, its origins are Greek. ‘Democracy’ is derived from demokratia, the root meanings of which are demos (people) and kratos (rule). …. Democracy entails a political community in which there is some form of political equality among the people.”
According to Held, it appears that the first “democratic” polity emerged in Chios during the mid-sixth century BCE, although others, all with their own particularities and idiosyncrasies, soon formed. Thus while Athens stands out as the pinnacle of this development, the new political culture became fairly widespread throughout ancient Greece. Furthermore, while today most people think that it is impossible to have democracy without elections, understood as universal suffrage expressed through secret ballot, the ancient Greeks, to whom the term, theory and practice of democracy in the West are usually traced, did not lay such a high premium on elections. As Held points out, they deployed multiple methods of selection of candidates for public office, including direct election, lot, and rotation. Yet we must never idealise ancient Athenian democracy because it excluded women, slaves and foreigners, so that the bulk of the city-state’s population was excluded from it. Besides, it was prone to manipulation, leading to some undesirable decisions such as the sentencing to death of the Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BCE.
Athens and other democratic ancient Greek city-states were overthrown by Alexander III (popularly known as “Alexander the Great“ [356-323 BCE]), who was a pupil of the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and his fellow Macedonian, and an avid supporter of the philosopher’s scholarly pursuits. However, Alexander’s empire was short-lived, and was eventually partly replaced by the Roman Empire. The Romans greatly admired Greek thought and culture, but deluded themselves with a pale shadow of what the democratic Greeks had done. With the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE and the subsequent rise of Roman Catholic dominion over Western Europe during the so-called Middle Ages (approximately 5th to 15th centuries CE), democratic ideas were almost unheard of in Western Europe, as the notion of the citizen who participates in governance was replaced by the believer in Roman Catholic doctrine, or, as Held puts it, homo politicus was eclipsed by homo credens.
However, democratic ideas in Western Europe were revived during the Renaissance—a French word literally translated as “rebirth”. The Renaissance, typically believed to have begun in Italy in the 13th century CE, was characterised by the revival of scientific and artistic activities that drew inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome. Nevertheless, with the rise of capitalism and liberalism in Western Europe around the 18th century CE, the ancient Graeco-Roman democratic ideas were re-modelled to articulate individualist aspirations subsumed under the term Liberal democracy. This was in sharp contrast to the moral, communitarian ideals of ancient Greece expressed through what is commonly referred to as direct democracy. Thus, in sharp contrast to the democratic thought of the ancient Greeks, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Herbet Spencer, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, among others, articulated a political philosophy which presented the individual as standing in opposition to society rather than in co-operation with it. For example, in On Liberty, Mill wrote:
“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. . . . The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Strangely, as Domenico Lesurdo graphically illustrates in Liberalism: A Counter-History, the liberal democratic ideas that the West trumpeted did not restrain it from enslaving and colonising the peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North, Central and South America—virtually most of humanity. Yet in the sunset of classical colonialism, Britain told its colonies, Kenya included, that they would only be adequately prepared for “independence” by demonstrating that they were “ready” to embrace liberal democracy, with the high premium it lays on elections. For example, a while ago a video clip was circulating in social media, in which, soon after the British released Jomo Kenyatta from prison, an English journalist condescendingly asked him if Kenya was ready for independence. Tragically, Kenyatta dignified the question with a reply. Yet scholars of decoloniality have now amply illustrated that “independence” is markedly different from liberation, the former turning Western colonies into Western neo-colonies now in the guise of globalisation, the latter tearing formerly colonised peoples away from the intellectual, economic, political, social and religious structures of Western imperialist domination.
Five ways in which elections hinder democracy in Kenya
In what follows, I seek to illustrate that elections are an obstacle to at least five characteristics of democracy understood as a governance system in which the people determine the direction of the management of public affairs: A decision-making process that is intelligible and practically accessible to the citizenry; respect for the voices of all citizens; an atmosphere in which citizens are highly motivated to pursue their common good rather than their sectional interests; a sense of solidarity among citizens; enough stability to keep a polity intact, and also instability sufficient for engendering requisite changes in the polity.
Alienation from the Political Process
Since democracy is rule by the people, the processes of governance ought to be intelligible to the citizens. Besides, A.S. Narang has noted that since politics is an integral part of culture, the political system of a society ought to be consistent with the cultures of the peoples governed by it so that they can identify with it. V.Y. Mudimbe memorably observed that Western colonisers engaged in “the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective.” Thus, as he laid The Foundation Stone of the Royal Technical College of East Africa (now the University of Nairobi) on 25th April 1952, Philip Mitchell is reported to have expressed the hope and belief that the College would “serve for the generations to come as an invaluable part of the foundations of the new society which we are building here”. So Mitchell was aware that he and his fellow colonisers were systematically dismantling the intellectual, social, political and economic structures of our various peoples and replacing them with a society created to serve their imperialist purposes for a long time to come.
The liberal democratic ideas that the West trumpeted did not restrain it from enslaving and colonising the peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North, Central and South America.
Indeed, more than fifty years before Philip Mitchell’s 1952 speech, the British invaders had decreed that Kenya would be perpetually under British imperial law. On 12th August 1897, they declared what they called The Reception Date, referring to the day when they issued a decree that the English statutes of general application passed before 12th August 1897 are law in Kenya, unless a Kenyan statute, or a latter English statute made applicable in Kenya, has repealed any such statute. In short, the British invaders imposed their law on the peoples of the territory now called Kenya in perpetuity, thereby purporting to declare the legal systems of those peoples null and void. Where the British invaders acknowledged indigenous legal systems at all, they demeaningly referred to them as “customary law” to communicate the presumption that they were inferior. It is noteworthy that the said imposition of English law on 12th August 1897 still holds to date, as evident in the way in which advocates and judges in Kenyan courts and speakers of Kenya’s parliament frequently refer to English law, but very rarely to the jurisprudence of our various peoples.
With the advent of Kenya’s independence in 1963, liberal democracy proved to be a crucial pillar of the “new society”, designed to facilitate the perpetual Western imperial domination over our peoples. No wonder Kenya’s independence constitution, which was liberal democratic through and through, was negotiated in a series of conferences at Lancaster House, situated in London’s West End, close to Buckingham Palace. In his Ph.D. Thesis, the late G.G. Kariuki notes that the venue was chosen because “it would insulate the delegates from ‘offstage pressure’ and enable the Colonial Office to exercise control over the course of discussion”. Thus the conferences were held under the keen supervision of the British colonisers, far away from the gaze of the people of Kenya in an age in which overseas communication was mainly by telegram, telephone and postal mail. Kariuki further observes that the agenda of the first Lancaster conference (18 January to 6th February, 1960) was tightly controlled by Ian Macleod, Secretary of State for the Colonies, under a shroud of secrecy in pursuit of British interests. The colonisers even determined who would attend it. In Not Yet Uhuru, Oginga Odinga narrates how during subsequent Lancaster conferences, Macleod’s successor, Reginald Maudling, arm-twisted KANU into accepting a federalist structure of government that would promote the interests of the European settlers.
Where the British invaders acknowledged indigenous legal systems at all, they demeaningly referred to them as “customary law” to communicate the presumption that they were inferior.
Thus, as I illustrated elsewhere, liberal democracy, with its characteristically thorough-going individualism, is alien to the communalistic outlook of the peoples of Africa. While the electorate are regularly urged to vote in pursuit of their personal interests rather than those of their cultural groups, many of them feel morally obligated to vote with a view to promoting the welfare of their cultural groups, which they see as extensions of their own families – and, as I argued in a previous article here, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with this if one is not under the spell of liberal democracy. What is more, elections, which are core to liberal democracy, are highly sophisticated, so that most of the electorate hardly understand what actually happens, thus the regular civic education drives prior to any poll. Besides, the high premium placed on the reports of Western so-called election observers is further testimony that foreigners understand the system better than its Kenyan users.
The people are further alienated from the political system by the fact that Western-type elections require massive finances—for campaigns (posters, rallies and media advertisements, among others), requisite fees to the elections management body, an army of agents to guard the vote in polling and tallying centres, and legal fees in case of election petitions. Clearly, the kinds of sums of money needed to run for office are way beyond the reach of most Kenyans, leaving competitive politics almost entirely to the upper middle class. This financially exclusive nature of Kenyan elections becomes clearer when one considers the fact that the law requires any civil servants wishing to run for political offices to resign from their jobs—a move which would spell almost certain financial disaster for most of them.
Disregard of citizens’ voices through majoritarianism and party politics
Contrary to the majoritarian Western liberal democratic orientation, respect for the voices of citizens means that no citizen expresses his/her view in vain—that every view counts. Even John Stuart Mill, that great defender of liberal democracy, distinguished between true democracy in which all are represented, and false democracy in which only the majority is represented. Yet in a majoritarian system such as Kenya’s, the voices of minorities are disregarded, as the winner-takes-all approach remains largely in place despite the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Thus, at the end of the 2022 Presidential Petition at the Supreme Court, Philomena Mwilu, Kenya’s Deputy Chief Justice, correctly observed that while it was fashionable to say that everyone was a winner in the court’s ruling, the truth was that over six million Kenyans were grieved by it.
Kwasi Wiredu highlights the important distinction between formal representation on the one hand, and substantive or decisional representation on the other: “There is the representation of a given constituency in council, and there is the representation of the will of a representative in the making of a given decision.” Wiredu avers that in the latter consensual case, both minority and majority views count, as they are represented not only in council but also in counsel: “. . . the majority prevails not over, but upon, the minority—they prevail upon them to accept the proposal in question, not just to live with it, which is the basic plight of minorities under majoritarian democracy.”
The high premium placed on the reports of Western so-called election observers is further testimony that foreigners understand the system better than its Kenyan users.
Besides, as I illustrated in “Doing Democracy without Party Politics”, the people’s voices, both the majority and the minority, are disregarded in a situation such as Kenya’s in which party leaders and their confidants have sweeping powers over the nomination of candidates to run for political office, and over positions taken by their parties in legislative processes. Recently we have seen parties shift from one coalition to another immediately after elections, which is clearly a move in total disregard of the wishes of those who voted for them on the premise that they belonged to particular coalitions. All this brings to mind David Held’s observation that since the ancient Athenians understood citizenship as participation in public affairs, they would have viewed the limited scope in contemporary politics for active involvement by most citizens as most undemocratic. Thus, as Uchenna Okeja observes, the core of the problem in current African politics is political failure—a specific kind of powerlessness which manifests in the feeling that individuals can do little to change the social and political circumstances shaping their lives, with the result that politics is experienced as meaningless performance.
Perhaps the sense of meaninglessness of politics that Okeja refers to above explains the fact that the voter turn-out has been dwindling in subsequent Kenyan elections. According to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), in 2013, 85.91 per cent of the 14,352,533 registered voters took part in the elections. According to the IEBC, out of the 19,611,423 registered voters, 15,145,546 (77.23 per cent) cast their ballots in the annulled 8th August 2017 presidential contest. According to Quartz Africa, the leading two candidates in those elections, then president Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, received a total of 15 million votes (approximately 76.5 per cent of the registered voters). However, only 6.5 million voters (less than 35 per cent) came out to cast their ballots in the 26th October 2017 repeat presidential election—a figure largely explained by Raila Odinga’s boycotting of the repeat poll.
The voter turn-out in the 2022 general elections was at its lowest in fifteen years (excluding the discredited repeat October 2017 poll). The Standard reported that according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the number of eligible voters rose by 10.49 per cent from 25,212,096 in 2017 to 27,857,598 in 2022. However, only 22,102,532 of them actually registered as voters, implying that more than 5 million of them did not even register as voters. Of the 22,102,532 who registered, only approximately 14,378,000 (65 per cent) actually cast their ballots, with the youth staying away from the polls. This means that approximately 8 million registered voters did not cast their ballots. Thus, Jakaya Kikwete, former President of Tanzania and leader of the East African Community Observer Mission to the 2022 Kenyan polls, stated: “You expect in every election to have a better voter turnout. So if the voter turnout is lower than in the past elections, then it is a matter of concern.”
Kenya’s Deputy Chief Justice, correctly observed that while it was fashionable to say that everyone was a winner in the court’s ruling, the truth was that over six million Kenyans were grieved by it.
There are those who believe that if one did not cast one’s vote, one has no right to complain when things go wrong in the governance of the country. This reasoning is faulty on at least three grounds. First, it suggests that a person who refrains from voting forfeits his/her citizenship—a patently false proposition in view of the fact that citizenship is acquired by birth, not by voting. Second, the reasoning is faulty because even those who do not vote pay taxes, and therefore have a right to comment on how their hard-earned money is spent. Third, with the serious lack of internal democracy in the political parties, many of the candidates nominated to run for office are largely imposed on the people, and as such the people have a right to refrain from endorsing them. Those who refrain from voting are saying that there is something pathologically wrong with the electoral process, and this is a message worth taking most seriously.
Obstacle to the pursuit of the common good
In his Politics, Aristotle memorably avered that human beings form states to jointly pursue the highest good. However, because liberal democracy is founded on the individualist values of capitalism, both the candidates and the voters go into elections with their personal interests rather than those of the country in mind. In a culturally plural country such as Kenya, and especially with the communalistic outlook of many of its peoples, the focus is usually on the perceived collective interests of the voters’ cultural groups fired on by cultural elites with rallying calls such as “It’s our Turn to Eat”. The result is that what is touted as an exercise to identify leaders for the good of the country is simply what Basil Davidson refers to as “a dogfight for the spoils of political power”—and a dogfight it is, with devastating consequences to life, limb and property, as graphically illustrated by the near-cataclysm of the Kenyan 2007/2008 post-election crisis.
Obstacle to citizen solidarity
By “citizen solidarity”, I refer to the feeling among compatriots that regardless of their divergent opinions, they belong to the same political project. Such solidarity is usually undergirded by moral values, especially justice and equity. However, even without the ravages of elections, citizen solidarity is shaky in Kenya’s multi-cultural society, which, like most other countries in Africa today, was forcefully cobbled together to serve colonial purposes. The British colonisers demeaningly referred to our various peoples first as “tribes”, and lately as “ethnic groups”, a matter on which Kalundi Serumaga sheds precious light. Elsewhere I have shown that while official census records indicate that Kenya is home to just over forty distinct peoples, the real number is well over seventy, with many of them condemned to official invisibility by the British colonial endeavours to consolidate groups that, by and large, had some cultural similarities—a practice that subsequent independent Kenyan governments have almost invariably continued to pursue.
Those who refrain from voting are saying that there is something pathologically wrong with the electoral process, and this is a message worth taking most seriously.
Ishbel Matheson correctly observes that in calmer times, cultural differences are a source of humour among Kenyans. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, more often than not, Kenyan politicians, like their counterparts in most other culturally plural post-colonial polities in Africa, engage in nationalist rhetoric while creating political cleavage along cultural lines, leading to the violation of the rights of non-dominant cultural groups to meaningful political participation, equitable economic opportunities, cultural identity, and secession. This situation results in an on-going lack of legitimacy in these polities, thereby exposing them to perpetual neo-colonial domination. The gross marginalisation of cultural minorities is amply illustrated by the fact that if a Kenyan from a minority such as the Ogiek, El Molo or Pokomo with a desire to see one of their own become president were to vote consistently in elections from the age of 18 to the age of 83, he/she would have voted fourteen times with an extremely slim chance of his/her preferred candidate winning the presidency, thereby aggravating his/her sense of exclusion from the polity.
What is more, in a bid to present themselves as more suitable for office than their competitors, contestants hurl insults and dubious or blatantly false accusations at their opponents. In a chapter in my recently published edited volume, Africa beyond Liberal Democracy cited earlier, Emmanuel Ifeanyi Ani observes that the verbal aggression in the contest for power in multi-party politics threatens the very foundations of peace, especially since empirical studies indicate that physical aggression is frequently preceded by verbal aggression. The feeble calls for the country to come together after the elections, usually made by whoever is declared winner, cannot match the effects of the vitriolic attacks traded by competitors for two to three years before the polls.
The citizen solidarity deficit in Kenya is further eroded by the belief, deeply entrenched in a sizeable proportion of the population, that elections favour those with access to state power. Indeed, during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes, personnel from the provincial administration who reported directly to the president doubled up as returning officers, to the great advantage of the president and his cronies. Even after this practice was shelved, the president continued to have wide latitude in the appointment of the commissioners of the now defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) which pushed the country to the edge of the precipice during the 2007 elections. The establishment of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) following the discredited 2007 elections was an attempt at addressing this anomaly, but the president continues to enjoy considerable latitude in the appointment of its commissioners.
Consequently, whereas in all liberal democracies incumbency affords considerable advantage to a contestant, the situation in Kenya is made much worse by the longstanding perception that the electoral process itself is routinely tilted to favour the incumbent or whoever an outgoing incumbent prefers. Thus, in the run-up to the 2007 elections, a senior member of the Kibaki family declared that every president occupies the office for ten years, suggesting that there was no way Kibaki could lose his bid for a second term. Similarly, during the campaigns for the 2017 elections, a politician declared that there was no way their side could lose the polls because they were already in government, and because they had won the 2013 polls while out of government. Besides, in the run-up to the 2022 elections, another politician declared that their coalition was bound to win because “the system” was on their side.
The citizen solidarity deficit in Kenya is further eroded by the belief, deeply entrenched in a sizeable proportion of the population, that elections favour those with access to state power.
It is therefore no wonder that all the presidential elections held since the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 have been challenged at the country’s Supreme Court, with contestants typically seeking to outdo each other in casting their opponents in unfavourable light in the full glare of the electronic and print media, thereby further eroding the shaky sense of solidarity among the country’s peoples. It is also not surprising that since 2007, the side declared to have lost has called for electoral reforms after every election. Yet much more needed than electoral reforms is an atmosphere of trust that can only be nurtured where fair play is the order of the day, not simply with regard to electoral laws and regulations. Thus Western-type liberal democratic elections in an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility have consistently reinforced the solidarity deficit among Kenya’s various peoples.
Cause of instability
Due to the foregoing considerations, Kenya lives under the shadow of political instability arising from the discontentment of those declared to have lost elections. Thus, according to a Kenya National Commission on Human Rights report, following the contested 2007 elections, approximately 1,500 Kenyans were killed, over 400,000 displaced, and an unknown number of women raped. Among the grotesque displays of violence motivated by politicised ethnicity were the Kiambaa church burning in Eldoret where 35 Kikuyus were killed, the burning of a house in Naivasha where 19 Luos were killed, the forcible circumcision of Luo men in Naivasha and parts of Central, Nairobi and Rift Valley Provinces, and Police shootings in several places, including Kisumu and Kericho. Besides, along with a number of people killed or wounded after the 2017 elections, there were economic boycotts, as well as calls for secession that threatened to plunge the country into all-out civil war.
Thus, soon after the dust settles on every Kenyan election cycle since the restoration of multi-party politics in late 1991, economic activity in the country picks up with the attendant optimism, only to plummet as the next polls approach. Clearly, the instability engendered by elections in Kenya is more than the desirable deliberative kind that produces positive change, for it threatens the very core of the polity.
Which way forward?
Several theorists from Africa have proposed alternatives to liberal democracy with its emphasis on general elections on the continent. Kwasi Wiredu prescribes a no-party consensual democracy to mitigate the ills of majoritarianism and institutionalised divisions. In a world in which liberal democracy enjoys an almost hegemonic status, many today might find Wiredu’s prescription odd. However, David Held informs us that while the citizens’ assembly in ancient Athens sometimes resorted to voting to settle intractable matters, it aimed at unanimity (Greek homonoia) in the belief that problems could only be resolved correctly in the common interest: “. . . the ideal remained consensus, and it is not clear that even a majority of issues was put to the vote”.
For Uchenna Okeja, public deliberation is the only way to effectively navigate the current political situation in Africa “where ambiguities and confusions exist regarding the ends of politics and the purpose of the state”. He is of the view that this will help to recover the agency of the individual eroded by the imposition of Western modes of governance on the peoples of Africa.
In Africa beyond Liberal Democracy, David Ngendo Tshimba warns against prioritising general elections in post-conflict societies such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Emefiena Ezeani proposes a pyramidal co-operative collegial democracy which dispenses with general elections, while I argue for ethnically-based federations to mitigate the trauma of colonial consolidation that continues to cause significant discontentment in culturally-plural countries in Africa. Let the discourse continue!
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Africa in the 21st Century: From Pawn to a Significant Player
The historic and humanistic project of fashioning African futures entails retrieving the past and reconstructing the present, and investing our imaginations and energies in envisioning a world that valorizes our duality as social beings and ecological beings, living in harmony with each other and sustainably with nature.
The world is undergoing profound and tumultuous transformations. Africa’s participation is likely to be uneven, messy, and unpredictable, but undoubtedly critical. The continent and its peoples have been an integral part of all momentous historical developments ever since the emergence of the modern world system half a millennium ago, indeed since the evolution of humanity on our incredibly beautiful but fragile planet increasingly despoiled and damaged by human activities.
However, more often than not Africa has been, as the late great Kenyan intellectual, Ali Mazrui, used to put it, a pawn rather than a player. What are the prospects for the continent becoming a key driver rather than a hapless passenger on the locomotive of global dramas and transformations in the 21st century? It is tempting to assume the ineluctability of Africa’s history of internal underdevelopment, external dependency, and global marginality. Evidence for such continuities is not hard to find in the voluminous data and indices churned incessantly by international agencies, consultancy firms, and academics on development, democracy, higher education, and even happiness in which Africa tends to score lower than other world regions.
Yet, beneath the invented and imaginary immutability of Africa’s fate, sanctified in the calcified and contemptuous narratives of Afro-pessimism, there are other developments, possibilities, and trajectories. Indeed, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Afro-optimism arose from Africa’s purported hopelessness proclaimed by The Economist in 2000 or the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s in Africanist discourse, with new hopes for self-determination, democratization, and development, the triple dreams of the enduring nationalist project. The “Africa Rising” narrative briefly captured the imagination of the ubiquitous development industry that is always looking to reinvent the frontiers of capitalist super exploitation. That optimism has faded a little, shuttered in part by the Covid-19 pandemic and apparent recessions of democracy and development.
Still, the 21st century is only in its infancy, and the future that is endlessly long cannot be foreclosed by the present. As a historian, I’m trained to be wary of crystal-gazing, indulging in futuristic fantasies of bliss or fears of blight, of forthcoming nirvana or damnation. As a scholar, I’m suspicious of both unbridled Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism. I veer towards Afro-realism that entails candidly acknowledging the structural weight of history on the present, as well as the power of human agency, of contemporary social movements and reconfigurations of power, to refashion the future. The past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined by the subterranean material and superstructural ideological forces through which the dialectical dance of history takes place.
In this presentation, I would like to discuss three forces out of several that will affect the place of Africa and African peoples in the 21st century. They include demography, diaspora, and culture. Let me say at the outset that these are exceedingly complex, contradictory and rapidly changing dynamics that will be conditioned by equally complicated, conflicting, and shifting constellation of global forces. My argument is quite simple: Africa is likely to become an increasingly important player in global affairs. I will begin by briefly outlining the unfolding changes in the world political economy. Then, I will discuss at greater length the three major transformative forces for Africa’s repositioning mentioned above. I’ll conclude with a few reflections on the implications for international relations and higher education.
Global Crises and Transformations
Please allow me to preface my remarks by referencing two of my books, one published, another under preparation. In 2021, I published Africa and the Disruptions of the Twenty-First Century. In one chapter covering what I regard as momentous developments in the 2010s, I identified six key trends. At the moment, I’m working on a book tentatively titled, The Long Transition to the 21st Century: A Global History of the Present, in which I seek to elaborate on several of these themes.
The first trend is what I call the globalization of tribalism, which refers to the spread of ethnocultural, xenophobic, racist, fundamentalist, and jingoistic nationalisms. Second, democratic recessions manifested in democratic backsliding, polarization and breakdowns in civic discourse even in the so-called mature democracies, which is accompanied by countervailing resistance by social movements. Third, there is rising economic disequilibrium evident in slower economic growth in many world regions, deepening inequalities, and significant shifts in the world economy.
Fourth, the world is undergoing shifting hierarchies and hegemonies evident in intensifying international tensions and rivalries that are fueling the specter of decoupling and de-globalization. The economic and political weight of emerging economies has risen; in 2018 middle-income countries accounted for 53.6% of global GDP in terms of purchasing-power parity. In PPP terms China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2014, and by 2018 its GDP stood at US$25.3 trillion compared to US$20.7 trillion for the United States.
Fifth, is the emergence of digital capitalism embedded in the unfolding Fourth Industrial Revolution that is transforming all aspects of economic, social and political life as digital, biological and physical systems increasingly converge. Sixth, is what I term the rebellion of nature which refers to the accelerating onslaught of extreme weather events, from hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, tsunamis, floods, and blizzards to droughts, dust storms, and wildfires, to melting icecaps and rising sea levels that threaten the survival of many islands and coastal settlements. Scientific consensus, global consciousness, and commitment to sustainable development goals and climate mitigation and adaptation have grown led by indefatigable environmental moments.
Since the end of World War II when the development industry emerged and poverty was discovered as a global problem amenable to policy interventions, scholars and policy makers have grappled with explaining why some countries are developed and wealthy and others remain underdeveloped and poor. These questions have been addressed differently in the various academic disciplines and from divergent ideological perspectives informed by Marxist and neo-Marxist, neo-classical, neo-liberal, feminist, constructivist, postcolonial, and ecological theories.
In more popular discourses, there are the various determinisms of geographical location, cultural norms, historical pathways, and ideological predilections. Undoubtedly, geography, culture, history, and ideology affect the processes and patterns of development. But notions that civilization, modernity, or development are a monopoly of selected peoples in Euro-America are intellectually untenable and emanate from odious imperialist, racist, and white supremacist ideologies.
More compelling explanatory frameworks of development are those that stress the quality of institutions, social trust, and human capital. Time does not allow for elaboration. Suffice it to say, the quality of human capital refers to the knowledge, skill sets, experiences, and attributes that people possess, which reflects their levels of education and state of health. Since independence the imperative of building human capital has been widely recognized by African states, international and intergovernmental agencies, and civil society.
There are three critical dimensions to consider in relation to the continent’s human capital development. First, is the demographic explosion from the centuries’ long demographic devastations of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism both perpetrated by Europe. While demography is not destiny, without population growth future destinies are compromised. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Africa’s share of the world population returned to what it had been in 1750 when the slave trade intensified. Population growth began to accelerate from the 1960s.
Africa’s share of the world population grew from 9.3 percent in 1960 to 10.7 percent in 1980 to 13.2 percent in 2000 to 17.2 percent in 2020. In raw numbers, there were about 283 million Africans in 1960, the so-called year of African independence. The population skyrocketed to 811 million in 2000, and 1.341 billion in 2020. On current trends, it is projected to rise to 25.6 percent in 2050 (2.489 billion) and 39.4 percent in 2100 (4.28 billion). Thus, whatever the challenges of postcolonial Africa, the continent has been enjoying a historic rate of population growth which points to improvements in material conditions and more subterranean changes in collective mentalities, moral economies, and cultural ecologies.
The youth bulge is a demographic phenomenon which occurs when child mortality declines but the fertility rate remains high so that a large share of the population is comprised of young people. Currently, about 60 percent of the African population is below 25 years old and by 2100 the continent will still have the world’s youngest population with a median age of 35. The relationship between population growth and economic development is a matter of fierce debate. In a world of fixed resources, Malthusian pessimists contend population growth undermines economic growth. But empirical evidence in the 1970s and 1980s showed that incomes in many regions continued to rise despite rapid population growth.
The optimists argue that population growth spurs increased competition, knowledge, innovation, and technology that fuels development. In contrast to the demographic pessimists and optimists, neutralists maintain there is no significant connection between population and economic growth. The reality is that population growth can become an asset or a brake on development depending on its evolving age structure and quality of human capital. The youth explosion, I believe, gives Africa unprecedented opportunities for development and democracy so long as the youth are fully mobilized through quality education and smart and targeted investment.
Writing in Foreign Affairs on the recent authoritarian wave in West Africa, Gyeman-Boadi, states, “citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Activists, journalists, opposition politicians, ordinary citizens, and even some state officials have forged a kind of resistance movement to demand accountability across the region. The most formidable foot soldiers include the new generation of creative young people, who are using a mix of new technology and old-school protest tactics to challenge corrupt officials and agitate for better governance.” Living in Kenya from 2016-2021, I was struck by the irrepressible energies, creativity, and entrepreneurial mindsets of the youth.
Second, then, is the question of the policies adopted by governments to build socioeconomic systems that can harness the youth bulge into a demographic dividend. The term refers to the economic benefit arising from a significant increase in the ratio of working-aged adults relative to young and old dependents. In countries with a high proportion of children or the elderly, a high proportion of resources is spent on taking care of these groups, which is likely to depress the pace of economic growth. When the youth bulge transitions into working age, it becomes, if it is endowed with good health and education, quality human capital that can generate the demographic dividend of economic growth.
However, the demographic dividend is not automatic or inevitable. It is driven by a complex mix of policies and investments through the mechanisms of labor supply, savings, and human capital. As Africa undergoes a demographic transition previously traversed by other regions, it has an opportunity to turn its current population boom into faster economic growth and development along the path of the economies of East Asia. There is now a huge literature and policy documents on the subject that time doesn’t allow for further elaboration.
Third, building capabilities is imperative, a concept that is well-articulated in reports by the United Nations Development Program. Defined as people’s freedom to choose what to be and do, which is closely related to the notion of opportunities, capabilities are critical for human development. The UNDP distinguishes between basic capabilities, such as early childhood survival, primary education, entry level technology, and resilience to recurrent shocks, and enhanced capabilities including access to quality health at all levels, high quality education at all levels, effective access to present-day technologies, and resilience to unknown new shocks.
The challenge for Africa is to raise both sets of capabilities and to improve what the UNDP calls the inequality adjusted HDI, which was introduced in 2010. The IHDI discounts the HDI according to the extent of inequality. The data is disaggregated in terms of the gender development index and the gender inequality index (a composite measure of gender inequality using three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment, and the labor market). HDI and IHDI rankings vary from conventional GDP per capita rankings. For example, in 2019, the world’s largest economies, the United States and China, were ranked 17th and 85th, respectively.
Education and employment are key indicators of human development. There have been remarkable improvements in education. For example, in 1959 there were only 76 universities across Africa concentrated in North Africa and South Africa. The number increased to 294 in 1979, and exploded to 784 in 2000 and 1,690 in 2021. But this accounted for only 8.39% of the world’s universities. Primary and secondary enrollments also improved raising the literacy rate to 65.6 percent, still the lowest in the world. The UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that $39 billion in annual financing is needed to improve access to the quality of education.
Also in need of massive investments and improvements is employment. According to data from the International Labor Organization, World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2020, the sub-Saharan Africa region suffers from high rates of unemployment, labor under-utilization, decent work deficits that are especially prevalent in the informal economy, the largest source of employment, and extreme rates of working poverty.
However, the narrative of Africa’s unemployment crisis has been challenged. According to Louise Fox of the Brookings Institution, “While there are exceptions—most notably South Africa and several resource-rich or fragile states—the economic growth registered since 2000 was accompanied by a steady growth in wage jobs, at a rate significantly faster than the growth of the labor force. Meanwhile, youth unemployment has been below world averages, controlling for income level. Unfortunately, this progress was interrupted by the COVID-19 health and economic crises, but it demonstrates the importance for job creation in African countries of getting back onto the path of economic stability and balanced economic growth as well as maintaining this trajectory through this decade.”
One of Africa’s biggest assets is its global diaspora created in successive waves of dispersal from the continent following the emergence of the modern world system. As the late renowned Egyptian intellectual, Samir Amin, often reminded us, Africans and Africa played a pivotal role in the development of the modern world system notwithstanding their exploitation and subjugation. Being oppressed doesn’t mean being marginal; as we know the oppression of women and workers doesn’t entail their irrelevance to the intersected system of racialized and patriarchal capitalism.
Diaspora Africans from the Iberian peninsula were among the conquerors of the Americas, and enslaved people from Western Africa, whose numbers outstripped European migrations until the staggered abolitions of the slave trade and slavery, helped lay the demographic, economic, social, cultural, and political foundations of the emerging colonial settler societies. As Walter Rodney taught us 50 years ago in his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, that became the canonical text of my generation as college students, slavery profoundly defined the development of modern capitalism, its institutional arrangements, and intellectual and ideological scaffolding.
Rodney’s powerful thesis echoed age-old writings by political activists and public intellectuals across the diaspora. In the United States, they ranged from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to W.E.B. Dubois to Mary McLeod Bethune. In his magisterial 2021 book, Out of Africa: The Real Roots of the Modern World, Howard French boldly takes the mantle of retrieving Africa from the mute presence and marginality imposed by Eurocentricism’s enduring epistemic conceits. Compellingly, he illuminates Africa’s centrality in the birth of the modern world.
Once academic discourses enter the popular media, they are deployed by dueling partisans and pundits. And so it was with the 1619 project by the New York Times that repackaged well known academic analyses that put enslaved Africans and their descendants at the center of American history, society and culture, and the development of the country’s economic, political, judicial, and educational institutions, as well as the struggles in the fiercely contested and unfinished project of democracy. The series inflamed America’s already incendiary racial politics, that was followed by the global racial reckoning forced by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
Recentering the histories of Africa’s old diasporas is essential for repositioning the centrality of Africa in world history and its multiple futures. There are nearly 200 million African descended peoples, the largest number being in Brazil with approximately 97 million, the United States with 43 million, and the Caribbean with 28 million. The new diasporas created out Africa’s recent global migrations number more than 15 million. In 2020, Africa had 40.6 million emigrants representing 14.5 percent of the world’s total of 280.6 million; the respective percentages were for Asia 40.9, Europe 22.6, the Americas 16.8, and Oceania 1.1. Twenty-five million of the continent’s international emigrants lived on the continent representing 1.9% of the population. Globally, emigrants represented 3.6% of the world population up from 2.8% in 2000 (or 183 million). So much for the myth that the world is facing an unparalleled invasions of migrants!
For the past two decades, I have been investigating the complex patterns and processes of engagement between Africa and its diasporas in Afro-America, Afro-Europe, and Afro-Asia. In my work, I focus on six sets of flows—demographic, cultural, economic, political, ideological, and iconographic. Particularly well-known is the important role played by the historic diaspora in the development of Pan-Africanism and the process of decolonization, which reverberated with civil rights struggles in the diaspora. Equally fascinating are the intricate cultural and artistic exchanges from religion to the performing and visual arts that I’ll briefly discuss shortly.
The new diasporas, are enmeshed in complex and contradictory relations with the historic diaspora and Africa encompassing physical movements, exchanges of cultural practices, productive resources, organizations and movements, ideologies and ideas, images and representations. The new diaspora is Africa’s biggest donor to use the language of the development industry. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, remittances to Africa reached $84.3 billion; they represented between 8.8 percent of GDP for Egypt which received $26. 4 billion, the largest, and 2.9 percent of GDP for Kenya that garnered $2.9 billion.
The opportunities for the remittances of social capital including what I call intellectual remittances are immense. For example, the approximately 2.1 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in the United States, to quote a report by the Migration Policy Institute, “tend to have higher levels of education than the overall foreign- and native-born populations. In 2019, 42 percent of sub-Saharan Africans ages 25 and over held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent for both all foreign- and U.S.-born adults.”
Relations between Africa and its global diasporas, old and new, must be scaffolded to a Pan-Africanism of the 21st century that simultaneously looks back and forward. The first requires critically examining the diverse and complicated histories of Pan-Africanisms in their ideological, political, economic, cultural, social, and artistic articulations across the interconnected local, national, regional, continental, trans-continental, and global historical geographies, paying attention to the work, struggles, activities, imaginations and aspirations of elites and ordinary people, men and women, and young and old. The second entails locating Pan-Africanism in the maelstrom of the contemporary world and its difficult demands and tantalizing possibilities. We need to decipher, systematically, strategically and smartly, what the political economies and ecologies of the 21st century entail for African peoples around the world.
In a world obsessed with the materialities and imperatives of economic growth and development it is easy to underestimate the centrality of cultural production and consumption, how the cultural and artistic artifacts of the human imagination embody and endow us with profound ontological and epistemological meanings. African cultural economies need to be understood from historical, expansive, and open-ended epistemic, aesthetic, and sociopolitical perspectives.
Under the authoritarian gaze and logic of empire, sanctified by the primitivist fantasies and desires of colonial anthropology, the authenticity of African cultures was frozen in an ethnographic present and premised on eternal difference and inferiority to Europe. African “tradition” interpolated as an eternal African past was counterposed to a dynamic western “modernity.” The former purportedly represented the “real Africa” and the latter imported mimicry.
In reality, during the colonial encounter African cultures were produced and reproduced through the dialectical interplay of domination, resistance and conversion in which imperial ideologies, practices and spectacles, and colonial transactions, negotiations, and struggles clashed and coalesced in messy, unpredictable, and tumultuous ways as historical processes tend to. The metropoles and colonies became imbricated, although each valorized the representations of difference, in stressing, reproducing and performing their respective ontological distinctions, despite the fact that the social formations of both were being reconfigured.
This points to the inherent complexity in the project of cultural decolonization. Colonialism and globalization make the recuperation of precolonial African cultures, which were themselves neither static nor uniform, idealistic gestures at best. Unpacking the historical processes of colonial cultural production is exceedingly demanding but critical to theorizing Africa’s cultural transformation. Part of the challenge is that during the colonial period, and after, cultures on the continent were also influenced by diaspora cultures and vice-versa.
In an article on musical engagements, for example, I show that “the influence of diasporan music on modern African music, especially popular music, has been immense. These influences and exchanges have created a complex tapestry of musical Afro-internationalism and Afro-modernism and music has been a critical site, a soundscape, in the construction of new diasporan and African identities. A diasporic perspective in the study of modern African music helps Africa reclaim its rightful place in the history of world music and saves Africans from unnecessary cultural anxieties about losing their musical ‘authenticity’ by borrowing from ‘Western’ music that appears, on closer inspection, to be diasporan African music.”
The creative arts “have constituted critical media of communication in the Pan-African world through which cultural influences, ideas, images, instruments, institutions and identities have continuously circulated in the process creating new modes of cultural expression” in both spaces. “This traffic in expressive culture is multidimensional and dynamic… it is facilitated by persistent demographic flows and ever-changing communication technologies and involves exchanges that are simultaneously transcontinental, transnational, and translational of artistic products, aesthetic codes, and conceptual matrixes.”
We have to go beyond the depoliticized, dehistoricized, idealistic and technicist approaches that treat African cultures within the continent and in the diaspora as separate from each other and divorced from political economy by reducing and equating “African culture” to “tradition” and imagined precolonial pasts. The term precolonial should be banished into the dustbin of Eurocentrism as it makes colonialism the pivot around which Africa’s history, the longest in the world, spins in eternal enthrallment to Europe.
The versatility and irrepressible exuberance of popular African cultures and creative arts, their irreverent and exhilarating yearnings for all-inclusive liberation mocks and subverts the singular elite narratives of African nationalism, their aspirations for social uniformity and conformity.
The importance of African cultural and creative industries (CCI) is increasingly recognized by governments, the corporate sector, social movements, and among the creative communities themselves within Africa, the diaspora, and around the world. Some value CCIs for their economic contributions to development. Others stress their dynamism and demonstrative power of African energies, excellence, and empowerment. There also those who applaud them for their capacity to forge shared Pan-African identities, understanding, and comity.
The African CCIs are of course not new, although the discourse is. It brings together earlier debates sponsored by UNESCO and the OAU about culture and development, and deliberations on the “culture industry” and later “creative industry” in the global North, which continues to dominate theorization of the concept. In 2008, the African Union adopted a Plan of Action on Cultural and Creative Industries. It applauded “the significant increase in the share of culture, information and the services sectors of the world market,” due to the liberalization of political systems and industries as part of globalization and increasing youthful population.
A year later, in 2009, UNESCO published a new framework for cultural statistics to better capture the sector’s breadth and depth, develop direct metrics measuring its economic and social dimensions, facilitate international comparative assessment, and integrate conceptual debates and new developments. It divided the cultural economy into six categories: first, cultural domains encompassing several practices and products; second, intangible cultural heritage comprising oral traditions and expressions, rituals, languages, and social practices; third, education and training; fourth, archiving and preserving; fifth, equipment and supporting materials; and sixth, the related domains of tourism and sports and recreation.
The growth of cultural industries in Africa is quite impressive. One consultancy report enthuses: “Emerging markets, particularly those in Africa, are home to vibrant creative and cultural industries (CCI) with massive investment potential. From the Yoruba to the Kongo, African civilizations have shaped the aesthetics, music, sculpture, textiles, and architecture of regions from North America to Latin America and Europe for centuries.”The vibrancy and potential of the CCI is attributed to the continent’s rapid urbanization, explosion in the youth population, expanding middle classes, and increased internet and mobile penetration.
African artists are effectively using digital technologies to produce their work, access and expand their audiences, and dialogue with them. The consumption of music through streaming services has grown, and the Covid-19 pandemic made virtual concerts and performances vital for survival. Similarly, digital technology has revolutionized the African film industry as the consumption of films expands through on-demand streaming services, smartphones, the internet, and television. African films are increasingly distributed through such domestic platforms as iRoko, Showmax, and Viusasa launched in Nigeria in 2011, South Africa in 2015, and Kenya in 2017, respectively, and international platforms including Netflix and Amazon’s Prime.
African fashion has also experience remarkable growth and local designers are increasingly patronized by the expanding middle classes keen to wear their national pride on their sleeves. African fashion shows are now common in major African and world cities. E-commerce has expanded the regional, diaspora and global reach of some fashion brands.
Sports is an arena in which the historic diaspora has long enjoyed prominence in the Americas as it was open to enslaved Africans to entertain whites. Now the new diaspora is registering its presence in popular sports in the United States especially in basketball and football, and in the lucrative soccer leagues of Europe. Writers from the new diasporas are joining their historic diaspora counterparts in raising their visibility in the literary, cinematic, and comedic arts.
Thus, the appeal of the African CCIs goes beyond Africa. There is a huge market in the diaspora, both the new and historic diasporas. The consumption of African cultural and creative products provides a powerful platform to perform and consume diaspora identities.
African cultural producers are increasingly subject to the push and pull of local and global appeal. The former matters for them in signifying their African authenticity and in generating revenues and driving their international influence that can be even more lucrative. The rising attractiveness of African creative products to consumers in the global North and some regions of the global South other than the diaspora is premised, in part, on their prior domestic popularity, the power of the diaspora especially African Americans as trendsetters of popular culture, the expansion of global tourism to Africa before covid-19, and the proliferation of social media.
Moreover, there is a long history of Western artists, Picasso being one of the most well-known in the 20th century, mining, borrowing, and exploiting African cultures and arts for inspiration and novelty, for new styles, motifs and expressive languages. More recently, major western entertainment firms are expanding their corporate footprint in Africa, especially in music. In the contemporary global conjuncture, there can be little doubt that culture and economy are interconnected. The challenge for Africa’s cultural economies is to develop paradigms and practices in which culture is a site of resistance and radical dreams and visions of a different future, rather than being relegated to one more “raw material” to be exported from Africa.
Africa’s cultural economies must simultaneously pursue the enduring struggles for decolonization, as well as the reconfiguration of the creative arts and cultures and their expressive and performative ethos, motifs and aesthetics that unapologetically reflect African and diaspora modernities. It must help us reimagine ways of being whole, of knowing, seeing, and fully living in the contemporary world, of seizing and possessing the 21st century as truly ours, to paraphrase and realize Kwame Nkrumah’s long deferred dream for the 20th century. The power of the creative arts goes beyond its economic and social value. It is fundamental to people’s identities, their emotional and mental health, and ultimately their humanity.
Africa’s demographic, diaspora, and cultural resurgence, together with equally complex and contradictory transformations in various political, economic, social, and ecological spheres that I have not examined in this presentation, have far reaching implications for the world. Africa has never been a peripheral region, and certainly what happens on the continent will shape the rest of the world in this century and subsequent ones.
This is a reality the major emerging economies including China are increasingly embracing. The United States is behind the curve, its Africa policy locked in outdated humanitarian and security impulses, increasingly overlaid by re-emerging Cold War imperatives. Take trade, for example. In 2021, while trade between China and Africa reached $254 billion, for the U.S. it declined to $64 billion from $142 billion in 2008. Chinese investment also eclipses America’s as the latter clings to the necrophilia of dead aid as Dambisa Moyo calls it in her renowned book.
In an article published two days ago in Foreign Affairs, “The Unkept Promises of Western Aid,” Ian Mitchell and Nancy Birdsall, lament “in truth, wealthy Western donor countries are not always honest about the assistance they provide. They find ways to exaggerate their real commitments through creative and dubious accounting practices meant to expand the definition of development-aid spending. And when it comes to the other category of assistance that wealthy countries owe to developing ones—finance to help the global South mitigate and adapt to climate change—rich countries fall egregiously short of what they have pledged, which is in turn tragically short of what poorer ones need.”
Any productive American engagement with Africa requires, argues Jon Temin, also in Foreign Affairs, reframing Africa geographically by abandoning the Eurocentric division of sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, supporting strong institutions over individual leaders, repudiating “the narrative that it is battling China for primacy in Africa,” and embracing African voices in international forums and geopolitical interests by reforming the United Nations Security Council and the architecture of international financial institutions.
Ignorance or disregard of African geopolitical interests will not serve any global power well, as its ill-informed pressures will be met by African resentment and resistance. Current American diplomatic pressure on African countries over Ukraine, including a proposed law in Congress that only targets the African region to toe the Western line, is deeply problematic and will not succeed. As Nanjala Nyabola reminds us in Foreign Affairs as well, “For many Africans, the current overtures from both Russia and the West are not about friendship. They are about using Africa as a means to an end… the dominant African position, given the large uncertainties about the war and its outcome, has been to demand peace and urge diplomacy—and, whenever possible, to avoid having to take sides in a conflict that seems unlikely to offer much to Africa, particularly if it turns the continent into a new theater of proxy war.”
What does all this mean for higher education institutions in the global North? In a recent presentation on rethinking global higher education partnerships, I propose a twelve-pronged agenda. Time only allows me to say that fundamentally this entails epistemic diversity, humility, and inclusion of African knowledges by institutions in the global North, and forging productive partnerships between them and African institutions premised on the ethical principles of respect, co-creation, and mutuality of benefits.
Since modern human emerged in Africa 300,000 years ago, from where they spread to other continents between 65,000 and 50,000 years ago, the long arch of history has bent towards two inexorable forces of globality, which override the periodic ruptures of great wars and the moral panics of othering outsiders. One is the expanding cycle of spatiotemporal compression that intensifies connectedness, communication, and the circulation of people, plants and pathogens, cultures, commodities and capital, and ideas, ideologies and institutions. The other is the rise and fall of civilizations, the periodic shifts in the geographies and technologies of hegemony and domination that the world is currently undergoing.
Ali Mazrui ended his celebrated 1986 television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, with an intriguing paean: “We are the people of the day before yesterday and the people of the day after tomorrow.” I read this as a tribute to the ancestral primacy of Africa, and its assured presence in the world’s futures as a player, not the pawn it has been over the last few centuries. The historic and humanistic project of fashioning African futures entails retrieving the past and reconstructing the present, and investing our imaginations and energies in envisioning a world that valorizes our duality as social beings and ecological beings, living in harmony with each other and sustainably with nature.
Queen Elizabeth II and the Weight of History
The death of Elizabeth II has ignited a substantial conversation about the British imperial past, the role of the British monarchy providing the cultural cover for genocide, enslavement, colonialism, imperialism, war and fascist ideas on planet earth.
It took nearly one hundred years after the passing of King Leopold II of Belgium for the atrocities committed by the Belgian King to come to the mainstream of European history. Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost: A story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa documented the brutal killing of more than 10 million Congolese and the crimes of the Belgian monarch and the Belgian state. Yet, compared to the British, the Belgians were novices as managers of the historical narrative. With their feudal monarchy as the anchor for power, exploitation and violence, the British had practiced the arts of pillage, kidnapping, slavery, genocide and colonialism much longer and more efficiently than the Belgians or the Portuguese. It was British historians who honed the propaganda machinery to spread jingoism among the British workers, utilizing the monarchy as the foil for stability and continuity.
In the last chapter of the book, Hochschild wrote of the “Great Forgetting”, the campaign undertaken by state historians to promote the view that monarchs such as King Leopold led the selfless mission to spread democracy and civilization. In the case of King Leopold II, a very large museum was built to commemorate the civilizing work of Belgium and how the Congo was transformed into a “model colony”. The current historical evidence of the state of the Congo is the best testament to that falsehood about the civilizing mission. Queen Victoria and 19th century liberal historians had already perfected the story of spreading Christianity, civilization, and commerce.
It was significant that Hochschild was not an academic historian, because the mainstream historians continued to produce books that showed how colonialism with royal patronage was progressive for the Global South. This scholarship on the “high moral purpose” of the civilizing mission of Europe was especially robust in the analysis of the relationship between Britain and Africa. From 1672 to 1752, the Royal Africa Company had the monopoly over the slave trade. The RAC shipped more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade and was owned entirely by the British Crown. It is this history that ensured that the history of the British monarchy in the past 400 years cannot be separated from the Atlantic slave trade and the impact on humanity.
On the cover of the book Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide by Sir Hilary Beckles, there is a picture of Queen Elizabeth II touring a plantation in Barbados that was in her family for more than one hundred years until the second half of the twentieth century. Queen Elizabeth walked around with jewels plundered from South Asia, Africa and the Americas. The estate worth more than a billion dollars bequeathed to King Charles III represents a legacy of stolen wealth.
The Global Reparations movement has brought a new urgency to the study of history by exposing the criminal past and present of racial capitalism. Walter Rodney, Priya Satia, Caroline Elkins, Hilary Beckles and Gerald Horne are among the historians who have exposed the criminal linkages of the British monarchy. It is from this corpus of historians that the weight of history is coming down on the legacy of Elizabeth Windsor. The overwhelming accounts from all sectors of the world point to the reality that no institution obscured the crimes of empire and buttressed class rule and white supremacy as effectively as the British monarchy. The movements for reparative justice all over the world have made it more difficult for historians of the left to relegate reparative history to the column of “identity” politics.
Where the Belgians failed to stifle the weight of history, Britain had been far more successful in sugar coating the colonial crimes with jingoism, propaganda and patriotism. With its developed university and media infrastructure and schools of history associated with Oxbridge traditions, Britain had been able to represent colonialism and empire-building as emanating from a “high moral purpose” where Britain carried out “progressive constitutional freedoms and the rule of law, along with free trade and free labor, among the less fortunate barbarians”.
It is from this corpus of historians that the weight of history is coming down on the legacy of Elizabeth Windsor.
No individual personified this high moral purpose of British imperialism more than Queen Elizabeth II. In the 70 years that she served as Britain’s monarch, the media remained in effusive praise of her quiet dignity and grace. However, the media barrage about her compassion and astuteness could not survive the pent-up flow of information on the legacies of the violence of British imperialism and the role of the monarchy in inventing and reinventing itself to conceal the crimes of empire. The weight of the historical evidence of the crimes associated with the House of Windsor could not be hidden with ritual, archaic pomp and ceremony so, even before the burial of Queen Elizabeth II, the outpouring of calls for reparative historical rendering had unleashed the call for a full reckoning of British imperialism and the end of the imperial monarchy. As one commentator noted, “Those who heralded a second Elizabethan age hoped Elizabeth II would sustain British greatness; instead, it was the era of the empire’s implosion.”
Death of a queen and crowning a new king
Elizabeth Windsor had ascended the British throne in 1952 and was formally crowned with pomp and pageantry in 1953. She was Britain’s monarch for 70 years until she departed this earthly life on 8 September 2022 at the age of 96. Her first son ascended as King Charles III of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth on 10 September 2022. She was buried at Windsor Castle on September 19 after a choreographed period of national and international mourning that mobilized all the media resources of Western imperialism.
The death of Elizabeth has ignited a substantial conversation about the British imperial past, the role of the British monarchy providing the cultural cover for genocide, enslavement, colonialism, imperialism, war and fascist ideas on planet earth. For 70 years, Elizabeth had been one of the principal props for the culture of capital. Her service to empire coincided with the explosion of film and television so the world could follow very closely the newsreels and films about her life, palaces, jewels, travels, her horses, and her dogs. The same media and film industry blurred, distorted, and not infrequently falsified criminal acts that were being committed in the name of the monarchy.
Anti-communism after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of her cousin Czar Nicholas II rendered the Queen an enormous supporter of anti-communism and other degenerate monarchs in Europe and all over the world. The British monarchy was descended from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in Germany but after World War I started, King Edward VII discarded the German ancestry and focused on the British heritage, the British royal family becoming the House of Windsor. The House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in Germany and the last of the Romanovs were related through many ties, especially through Queen Victoria who had been deemed the Queen of Europe. Hence, after the Bolshevik Revolution and the war of the White Russians to return the monarchy in Russia, the British monarch was at the centre of the fund-raising and mobilizing of sympathy for anti-communist forces in Europe. Elizabeth II became the monarchs’ monarch and titular leader of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS), especially following the decolonization processes after the second imperialist war.
Elizabeth matured in Britain when the anti-communists and the aristo-fascists supported Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The mainstream media had diminished the overt racist orientation of Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, King Edward VIII, who had been a Nazi sympathizer. His abdication in 1936 paved the way for Elizabeth’s father to become King, being crowned George VI. He was the King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth from 11 December 1936 until his death in 1952. He was concurrently the last Emperor of India until August 1947, when the British Raj was dissolved. The Indian people robbed Queen Elizabeth of the opportunity to become Empress of India by fighting for their independence.
Queen Elizabeth had, however, ensured the continuity of white nationalist ideas in Buckingham Palace by marrying the Greek prince Phillip, a known fascist sympathizer. The racist statements made by Prince Phillip in the 99 years that he lived offered a clear window into the racism of the royal family. For more than 40 years prior, his racist, sexist, or degrading statements were brushed off as “gaffes”. Elizabeth worked hard throughout her life to ensure that this link of the family to racism and xenophobic ideas did not discredit the monarchy. Within the Anglo-American world, the racism of the Anglo-Saxon media treated Phillip and Elizabeth as celebrities, supporting the hagiographic stories about the House of Windsor that came from British tabloids. The British media was outraged when Prince Harry, the grandson of the queen, married Meghan Markle, a non-white woman. Both Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stated clearly that they were driven from the royal family because of racism. The racial politics of Queen Elizabeth’s family, and their relation to public life had been cleverly covered up by the media and historians but the robust Black Lives Matter movement brought anti-racism to the forefront of the international agenda. This social movement debunked the mythology of royal blood and lineage.
Queen Elizabeth and the British working class
Phillip and Elizabeth were conscious of their place in Britain and the responsibility of the monarchy in preserving social and political stability, especially in times of heightened crises for British imperialism. Elizabeth was born in the year of the largest industrial dispute in Britain’s history; the general strike of the British miners in 1926. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) had called the general strike to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for coal miners. It took place over nine days, from 4 to 12 May 1926. Elizabeth grew up overseeing successive governments unleash all the power of the British state to weaken the workers up until the era of Margaret Thatcher when the neo-liberal turn demanded the crippling of the autonomy of the British working class.
The Indian people robbed Queen Elizabeth of the opportunity to become Empress of India by fighting for their independence.
Sixty years after the great general strike, when Elizabeth II was in her prime and taking tea with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the British Trade Union movement was being squeezed. Using the legal façade of the constitutional monarchy, Thatcherites orchestrated laws to restrict the right of picketing, prevented unions from bringing their members out in support of other unions and introduced fines and asset seizures for unions that struck without a ballot.
One of the cardinal principles of liberal democracy in Britain was the right of the worker to assemble and make decisions about collective bargaining. This had been one of the major victories of the British working peoples after three major reform bills of the 19th century had sought to weaken the monarchy and the hereditary House of Lords. Under the reign of Elizabeth II, Thatcher and the scavenger capitalists joined hands together to lull the workers into celebrating a monarch who actively worked for their oppression. Liberalism had been refined in the 19th century by historians and legal experts with virtuous sounding ideals like freedom, the right to strike, reformism, and the rule of law. The Anglo-American academy bought into this liberalism as justification to wreak devastation while seeking to bind the white working classes in Europe and North America to the ideas of right-wing neo-fascist populism and nativism. These ideas of global apartheid did bring some material comforts to workers in the metropoles, but the national liberation struggles, and the anti-imperialist struggles smashed the gilded cage of the monarch and her servile prime ministers.
Historians such as E.P. Thompson had sought to intervene to provide an alternate view of empire and the place of the monarch in relation to the British worker. The weight of the official and sanctioned historians drowned out the contributions of historians critical of the monarchy and empire. Queen Elizabeth and Britain were represented by historians and by the media as symbols of modern Western civilization, the defenders of democracy. When the anti-racist and anti-colonial historians emerged out of the former colonial societies, there were historians who asserted that the monarch and colonialism were, “on balance”, good for humanity. From the era of the imperialist partitioning of the world and the imperial wars in Africa, British historians had weighed in on the humanitarian goals of Britain and the monarch. In their book Africa and the Victorians, Ronald Robinson and John Andrew Gallagher now stand out in the long tradition as the historians who established this practice of rendering British imperialism as being guided by strategic considerations and high moral ideals.
Under the reign of Elizabeth II, Thatcher and the scavenger capitalists joined hands together to lull the workers into celebrating a monarch who actively worked for their oppression.
A generation later, those who mechanically understood Marx to mean that capitalism represented a progressive period of human history argued that, despite its “crimes”, colonialism was good for the Global South. Some Marxists like Bill Warren of the United Kingdom argued, on what were purportedly Leninist grounds, that capitalist imperialism, even in the form of direct colonial rule, performed a historically highly progressive role in non-European societies, economically, culturally, and politically: through capital exports it, laid the foundation for the development of the productive forces and of a vibrant, indigenously rooted capitalism. In the 21st century, some Marxist formations still claim that the anti-racism programme is based on “identity politics” and that the pursuit of an anti-racist agenda divides the working class in Europe and North America. This left is prostrate as the forces of white supremacy gain political ground in all parts of the white world.
Queen Elizabeth and the royal family played to the song that British imperial expansion and slavery had been good for humans. All over the Empire all subjects were brought up singing, “Rule Britannia, Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves, We Britons will never be slaves.”
The British worker in turn consumed the writings of media barons such as Lord Beaverbrook who also doubled up as a historian. Lord Beaverbrook and Winston Churchill were two favourite historians of British imperialism. The media drubbed the ideas of Beaverbrook and Churchill down the noses of the British workers, mobilizing them to be accessories to the crimes of imperialism. As a young person in Jamaica, I remember being wheeled out as a primary school pupil to wave to the Queen as she travelled to Beaverbrook’s Fairfield property in Montego Bay. Winston Churchill was a regular visitor to that property.
Winston Churchill was prime minister when Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1952. He had been the most vibrant of imperialists, fighting in the Sudan and South Africa for British colonial interests. At the height of the struggle for the independence of India in 1942, Churchill had stated clearly that “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”
All over the Empire all subjects were brought up singing, “Rule Britannia, Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves, We Britons will never be slaves.”
The liquidation of the empire was a long, brutal and painful exercise. From the first Elizabethan era, the British Empire, as one of the cradles of racial capitalism, had spread across the entire globe. By the start of the 20th century British imperialism dominated and exploited humans in 57 colonies, dominions, territories or protectorates from Australia, Canada and India to Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Fiji, Western Samoa and Tonga. From London, the British extracted wealth from approximately 20 per cent of the world’s population and governed nearly 25 per cent of the world’s land mass. The British East India Company had presided over the destruction of Indian industry while the British imposed opium on the Chinese people purely to extract drug revenues. One of the first acts of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was to personally shore up the spine of the Shah of Iran so that the British/US coup d’état against the Mossadegh government could proceed. The declassification of the role of the “Queen and the Coup” in Iran is one of those areas of historical research that needs to be undertaken.
It was in Africa, however, where the ideas of eugenics, white supremacy and the necessity for British charity had been refined. Be it the Boys Scouts, the Girl Guides, or the Salvation Army, the British monarch was always a supporter of Britain’s military-structured, organized youth. Queen Elizabeth II was only one of the monarchs who hid the wealth of the royal family behind garden parties and ceremonies as the patron of hundreds of charities. The modern humanitarian/military lobby depended on Queen Elizabeth to be the patron of their enterprises. This humanitarian industry is one of the principal branches of imperial capital with international non-governmental agencies being the foot soldiers of modern imperialism.
Queen Elizabeth’s assent was needed to enact the laws that restricted the right of picketing, prevented unions from bringing their members out in support of other unions, and introduced fines and asset seizures for unions that struck without a ballot. Racism, chauvinism and the support of racists from Enoch Powell to Liz Truss were needed to divide the British working people. Even the main voice of the US bourgeoisie, the New York Times, commented on the continuities of racism in Britain two days before the announcement of the death of the queen, writing, “The British Empire may have all but ended 60 years ago, but the country’s next prime minister is still in thrall to its legacy.”
A day after Queen Elizabeth asked Liz Truss to form a government as her 15th prime minister since Winston Churchill, she expired.
The Queen as a celebrity in the tradition of Hollywood
The American Revolution of 1776 had attempted to make a decisive break with the dynastic rule of the British monarch. After the War of Independence and the War of 1812, the US dropped its nomenclature as a British diaspora. However, after the economic crises of 1870 and 1913, when the British pound crashed, the alliance between Wall Street and the City of London rehabilitated the British monarchy in the eyes of US republican citizens. Hollywood and the Anglo-American media gave a new lease of life to the monarchy and one of the primary beneficiaries of this media alliance was Elizabeth who ascended the throne in 1952 after the debacle of the Second World War. This City of London/Wall Street alliance supported the exorbitant privilege of the dollar so that the US could pursue the military management of the international system. Together with the costume-dressed military guards of the royalty, the British military was a useful prop for US and British militarism in the era of “the special relationship”. Scholars who have studied this special relationship spell out five areas of cooperation between Britain and the USA: currency; nuclear cooperation, especially Trident and Polaris; joint signals intelligence (SIGINT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) manifest in global surveillance programs jointly operated by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ); joint military aggression as manifest in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan; and collaboration in media propaganda and disinformation. The Queen of England was a central prop for this media and propaganda alliance for over 70 years. One columnist, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post, condemned the “propaganda, fantasy, and ignorance” that have portrayed the Queen as a “symbol of decorum and stability” during her reign.
The alliance between Wall Street and the City of London rehabilitated the British monarchy in the eyes of US republican citizens.
That section of the US ruling elites whose roots go back to Ireland had opposed the propaganda and disinformation that was inscribed in the special relationship. In 2011, Elizabeth journeyed to the Irish Republic to conciliate the very strong Irish lobby within the US political circles. The struggles for national liberation in Ireland had been long, brutal and bloody so that by 1949 the Irish Republic did not want to be associated with the British, and hence Ireland is one of the ex-colonies of Britain that is not a member of the Commonwealth. While Britain and the US identified freedom fighters from Africa and Asia as terrorists, the British were never able to make the terrorist label stick to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Irish needed to be bound with global white supremacy in the era of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. Irish historians and playwrights were being wooed by Queen Elizabeth to erase the crimes of Empire and encourage the Irish to integrate into global whiteness, part of a long effort to make the Irish white.
Queen Elizabeth and the independence movements around the world
From the moment of her accession, Elizabeth was faced with the realities of the national liberation struggles. The mainstream historical record is replete with the stories of a beneficent queen granting independence to subjects in far-flung realms. The reality was very different. From her accession to the end, Elizabeth had to act as the titular Head of State to conservative and imperial prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss. The relationship between Britain and India is one of fierce contestation as contemporary barons of capital from India seek an alliance with the most racist sections of British capitalism. In the recent competition for the position of prime minister, Rishi Sunak represented that section of global Indian capital entwined with British capital that wanted to take the premiership of Great Britain. But the British conservatives were not ready for a brown person to be their constitutional leader. Queen Elizabeth’s last public act was to hand constitutional power to Liz Truss to be the Head of Government.
The relationship between Britain and India remains too toxic for British historians. Indian historians have been bringing down the weight of historical evidence to chronicle the crimes of Britain on the Indian sub-continent. Every major European country had established what they called East India companies. The Dutch East India Company, the French East India Company, The German East India Company and the British East India Company were all criminal institutions that orchestrated massive crimes in the world. It was, however, the British East India Company that stood out over the course of 200 years. The new historians from India have documented that the British siphoned off an amount of around US$45 trillion from India. Utsa Patnaik has documented historical evidence that the East India Company was formalized back in the early 17th century, enduring through the Raj from 1858 all the way to 1947.
The mainstream historical record is replete with the stories of a beneficent queen granting independence to subjects in far-flung realms.
Elizabeth had been vacationing in Kenya in 1952 when the Land and Freedom Army was fighting for independence from Britain. Most of the obituaries of Elizabeth sympathetically recounted how she went from being a princess on safari in Kenya to becoming Queen of Great Britain and the Empire. But the realities were very different. Before the anti-apartheid movement punctured the myth of white supremacy in South Africa, Queen Elizabeth had been the darling of the Cape Town set. Britain remained the primary international supporter of apartheid — in terms of investments, trade and military relations — of the apartheid governments from 1948 to 1994.
Queen Elizabeth and Africa
Looting Africa and kidnapping Africans had been central to the wealth and power of the British monarchy. In the present period of reparative history, economic historians of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in the USA have written long papers on whether British industrialization profited more from slave trading or from slave holding. Eric Williams, Oliver Cox, C.L. R James, W.E.B Dubois, Ed Baptist, Gerald Horne and Joseph E. Inikori are among the historians who have chronicled the foundations of racial capitalism and the reality that capitalism could not have triumphed without the racism that underpinned it through viciously enforced labour by the whip in order to produce the cotton, sugar and tobacco that spawned other industrial enterprises throughout Europe. In the main, European historians, both from the right and the left, remain uncomfortable with the proposition that it was not solely the ingenuity of British inventors that precipitated the industrial revolution and the capitalist mode of production.
Colonial historians from the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) had covered up the intricate connections between slavery, capitalism and the monarchy. Walter Rodney’s book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was a landmark text to implicate the imperial states in destruction, genocide and xenophobia. Hilary Beckles’ Britain’s Black Debt and his most recent book, How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean, have documented the role of the Crown and the British capitalist class in enslavement, colonialism and racism. That body of scholarship surged beyond the controlled output from mainstream historians.
Looting Africa and kidnapping Africans had been central to the wealth and power of the British monarchy.
Over the past several years, a series of books have reshaped how historians view the connection between the monarchy, empire, colonialism, slavery and capitalism. These texts have informed a younger generation of the crimes of the British and the complicity of the monarchy. While from Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria to South Africa and Uganda, news of Queen Elizabeth’s death was met with an outpouring of official condolences, mourning and recalling of memories of her frequent visits to Africa during her seven decades on the throne, there was an opposite response from the mass of the population. It was from social media that one got a sense of the overwhelming sentiment that was echoed by the Economic Freedom Fighters of South Africa. When she died, the EFF issued a statement declaring that Queen Elizabeth had been the “head of an institution built up, sustained and living off a brutal legacy of dehumanization of millions of people across the world”. The EFF noted that the death of Elizabeth was “a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa’s history”.
This new history is now most vividly represented in the recent book by Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. In this book there is documentation of the legacy of empire “that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands dead”, and untold numbers of lives ruined by forced labour, starvation, torture and rape. In reprising the same depth of depravity that was revealed in King Leopold’s Ghost, Caroline Elkins documented how the use of violence was central to the spread and maintenance of the British Empire. Her earlier work, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, documented the manner in which the national liberation struggles had been suppressed with mass internment and many executions. This exposure of British neo-fascism in Kenya comes after 70 years of British historical writing that represented Kenya as one of the beneficiaries of the rule of law and economic prosperity.
British historians working through Commissions and through foundations unleashed reams of texts and reports documenting the role of Britain in expanding the rule of law in Africa. Now, after the death of the Queen, hundreds of younger Africans from the Rhodes Must Fall generation draw attention to the regalia of the Queen and the linkages to the plunder of African minerals. Most of the youths across the planet would agree with the observation of Chris Hedges that,
Colonial historians from the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) had covered up the intricate connections between slavery, capitalism and the monarchy.
“[The] Monarchy obscures the crimes of empire and wraps them in nostalgia. It exalts white supremacy and racial hierarchy. It justifies class rule. It buttresses an economic and social system that callously discards and often consigns to death those considered the lesser breeds, most of whom are people of color.”
Supporters of the Queen remarked in the period of the choreographed mourning that the Queen did not know about the crimes committed in her name. The media moguls wanted to have it both ways, representing the Queen as being astute and following details of the budgets and plans of successive prime ministers, but not being fully aware of British crimes under her reign.
King Charles III and the burden of historical crimes
At the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the international tune noted that it was the end of an era. But the question needs to be posed: The end of what kind of era? Over the 70 years of the reign of Elizabeth II, British capital limped as the national liberation and decolonization forces limited the power and reach of the Crown. Chauvinism, white nationalism and xenophobia surged in Britain with a UK Independence Party emerging in the society. That formation could not thrive because the monarchy represented the same values that UKIP were championing. The conservative political leadership mobilized the British workers into a frenzy of nationalism to the point of leaving the European Union (BREXIT) and becoming the special partner of the United States in warfare.
With the duplicity of the British conservative forces, the elements that surged to the surface under Boris Johnson promoted the idea of Global Britain. According to the Tories, “Global Britain is about reinvesting in our relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage.” The management of “Operation London Bridge is down” was supposed to be one other moment to showcase Global Britain. However, the planners of the period of mourning and rituals of burial did not reckon with a mobilized anti-racist youth internationally. The Queen’s Global appeal and her longevity were presented by the media as the depiction of Global Britain. Global Britain replaced the concept of Great Britain. It is now clear that Britain is neither global, nor great, and as Stuart Hall has noted, “The very notion of Great Britain’s ‘greatness’ is bound up with empire.”
The planners of the period of mourning and rituals of burial did not reckon with a mobilized anti-racist youth internationally.
Scholars such as Caroline Elkins and Hilary Beckles are in the vanguard of a new reparative history. Britain is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious and diverse society. It is not clear whether King Charles III and the monarchy will survive this new era of reparative healing and social justice. The survival of the 315-year-old United Kingdom itself is not necessarily assured. In the period of COVID, inflation, energy crisis, warfare, and the cuddling of billionaires, it could be said that the presence of Queen Elizabeth II had spared Britain the possibility of the emergence of a right-wing politician such as Donald Trump in the US or Victor Orban in Hungary. King Charles III has acceded to the throne at a moment of the deepest collapse of living standards for the British working peoples since the Great Depression. It is not clear that King Charles III as a member of the billionaire class can reinvent the role in preserving social and political stability, especially in this time of decline of British capital. The important lesson from Belgium and King Leopold is that the absence of reparative history sent the society down the road of right-wing nationalism and irreconcilable divisions between the Flemish and French-speaking sections of the population.
When he was Prince Charles of Wales, he stated at the Commonwealth conference in Kigali in June 2022 that,
“The roots of our contemporary association run deep into the most painful period of our history. I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact. If we are to forge a common future that benefits all our citizens, we too must find ways, new ways, to acknowledge our own past. Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come.”
Was this a speech written for him or did he mean what he said in Barbados and Kigali about the deep personal sorrow? As King, Charles is now the head of the House of Windsor; he can go beyond “personal sorrow”. The presentation in Kigali suggests that he has recognized the poisoned legacy of the British Royal family, of which his mother, Queen Elizabeth II was the most determined and astute defender.
King Charles III must come clean and offer genuine apology to all those that suffered under British slavers, colonizers and economic criminal exploiters. This apology will be an important step in the direction of reparative justice, demilitarization and racial healing.
“If my husband touches you I will kill you”
Rape, abuse, neglect, and death threats: the lives of Kenyan women returning from Saudi.
TW: This article contains sensitive and graphic descriptions of abuse, rape and sexual assault.
The stories merge, one woman’s trauma echoed in another’s nightmare. One survivor’s smile waning bearing witness to another’s unhealed wounds. The nods of acknowledgement, the sighs of empathy. They’ve all been there, but they know each one’s hurt stings differently. Some eyes are bright with unshed tears, some are empty, some laughs are of gallows humour, a few of shared wins. Some scars are physical and on display, but the ones that fester most are invisible.
Through in-depth interviews and focus groups with Migrant-Rights.Org, Kenyan women share stories about their life in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. While they all speak of long work hours, poor or no pay, lack of nourishment, and verbal abuse, almost all who have been to Saudi Arabia share tales far more tragic. Rape, sexual assault, torture…every anecdote shared has physical or emotional evidence. The burns, the limps, the breathless gasps, the estranged families.
In a dank, badly lit room in Nairobi, 12 women come together. Four wish to go abroad, and the rest jaded with experience are eager to share. The advice flies around the room thick and fast, accompanied by mirthless laughs.
For what? another asks.
“For accommodating all the insults.”
“Be ready for sleepless nights.”
“There won’t be enough food.”
“Get used to a lot of black tea. A lot. And kubooz.”
“Panadol is your doctor. You have only that, however sick you are, even if you feel like you are dying.”
This draws loud laughs from everyone.
“Expect not to have sanitary towels.”
“Your own soap.”
“Or even drinking water.”
Ruth, who spent two years in Hafar Al Batin and Dammam, Saudi, is brusque with her inputs. “Expect that when your contract ends you won’t be let go easily.
The trauma continues as they arrive home. Many who return without meeting their goal come back to empty homes or hostile environments. A perceived shame for being a victim of abuse.
Like Celestine, who chooses to live away from her young kids. “I am homeless, I live with my friend Feith. I am scared to be with my kids. I am scared the demons in my head will take over and I will kill myself and my kids.”
You will be raped. You will be beaten. No action will be taken. You will have a child as evidence of rape. Still no action. The police, the embassy, the office all collaborate to make you work only. You have no rights.
Her friend Feith sits by her, reaching out with her good hand. The other hand is healing from severe burns inflicted on her by her employer. Feith somehow appears stronger. She escaped and helped Celeste out too.
(Report continues below, after Abuse Beyond Comprehension)
Abuse Beyond Comprehension
Sister Florence is a professional counsellor with Counter Human Trafficking Trust-East Africa (CHTEA). While the organisation has helped many returnees from Lebanon with a seed fund to start a business, Sr Florence has worked with dozens of victims of abuse who have returned from the Gulf states, including those that Migrant-Rights.Org helped repatriate.
The highly traumatised are taken to a safe house on arrival. “I meet them twice a day, as they need constant support. At least at the beginning. When they are in a good-ish place, we reduce the sessions.”
However, their families don’t always accept them.
“We have victims of trafficking from other countries in the world, but none as bad as the ones coming from the Gulf. Especially Saudi,” she says and wonders if it’s because of a clash of culture or misunderstanding. While victims from Europe are usually those trafficked to brothels or into prostitution, in the case of the Gulf, it’s women who go to work in households, she explains.
“Some things are beyond comprehension. Father and sons raping the worker, women standing by and not doing anything…Rape is taboo, but a rape like this is even worse. It is sex slavery. They become objects. They are beaten and burned. They are penetrated with bottles and vegetables. They are also forced into abortions. And if the pregnancy continues they are jailed.”
The taboo is so deep-rooted, that women don’t even use the word ‘rape’. “They will describe everything else. Say bad things happened to them, but the stigma attached to the word is so bad, that they won’t say they were raped. Healing is such a slow and tedious process. Some are suicidal and need to be observed all the time. Once they leave the safe house they still have to be monitored. All of this is resource-intensive, expensive.”
Sr Florence says the trauma women face begins when their documents are confiscated, and then their phones. It weakens them. “It is chipping away at their personality, their humanity. Still, people go, because there are some success stories.”
It’s not just women who are subject to sexual assault and rape. “I have also spoken to some men. They’ve been sodomised. Abused. But they keep quiet. They are working as watchmen or in construction. They don’t talk about it. They suffer in silence. Then they end up with problems of substance abuse, alcohol, drugs, being suicidal, unable to cope with what they’ve endured.”
She is critical of the whole anti-trafficking agenda for leaving men out. “There are safe houses only for women and children? What about the men? Even if trafficked they are seen as victims of labour abuse alone.”
(Continuation of report)
Despite what she went through, it’s Feith who provides succour to Celestine,28, whom Feith feels had it worse. As if torture needs to be graded.
The two women went to Saudi at the same time with the same agent. Celestine ended up in Hafar Al Batin in the east of the kingdom, not far from the Kuwait and Iraq borders. Things were not so bad for Celestine to begin with. “They gave me food. I worked 8 to 8. They treated me well.”
After two weeks, the husband started coming on to her, barging into her room, and knocking on the door when she would go for a shower. She informed the agent in Kenya, who did nothing. She could not tell the wife, who had told Celestine at the very beginning that if baba touched her, she (the wife) would hurt her.
“The man started coming to my room with a gun. On 3 February (2020), the lady was not home. He came and raped me. And he continued raping me over the coming months until November. In the fifth month, he raped and hit me with the gun on the head and I fainted.”
She was taken to the hospital but warned not to complain to anyone. She was sent back home with medicine and the sexual assault continued. “He would also hit me. There are marks all over here [patting her stomach, chest, genitals]. He would stomp my genital area with his boots. Then he started anal rape too. I would scream and cry in pain.”
They would never miss a prayer but would come back from the prayers and mistreat you.
She finally called Feith, who advised her to run away since the agent was of no help.
One evening as Celestine was deliberating her escape, the employer brought home six men and they threatened to rape her, kill her and dispose of her in trash bags. “I just ran. I found my way to the office. They called the police, but the police asked me to go get evidence from the same family. The agent said the same. I refused. They beat me and sold me to the brother of the employer.”
Celestine’s tone is flat and her voice soft as she recounts the months of horror, but silent tears fall steadily through the one-hour conversation. Feith asks her in Swahili if she would like to stop. She pauses for a sip of water and insists on continuing.
At the new house there were 30 people, she says. By then, all her injuries were infected, with pus oozing out, and no medication — none of which was considered evidence. Here again, she worked from 6 am to 3 am, with hardly any food and no pay.
“On 29 November, the son came to my room to rape again and started beating me. Now the bleeding was heavy (points to her genital area). They then served some food with something green in it and said it was medicine for Covid. A child in the house came and told me don’t eat that. A 10-year-old boy. He said it was poison.”
[Feith interjects. “Children save lives. So often they come and help.”]
Celestine developed terrible stomach pain and bleeding, as she had eaten some morsels. She was taken to the hospital. Finally, she was sent to the agency office, where she was locked up with other Africans with similar cases. “We all ran away to the police somehow. And they helped repatriate us in February 2021.”
The poison has affected her liver. The abortions she was forced to have, and other injuries from the beatings she received, have also impacted her health and made it impossible for Celestine to work. She receives some help through church groups but says she is still haunted by what happened.
“Therapy is taking time to heal. When I shower and see my scars, everything unravels again. It’s too difficult. I feel so dehumanised. My mind is not working,” she says.
All the returnees have some version of the sexual harassment they faced.
Sophia, who did a short stint in Saudi before escaping abuse and overwork, spent another three years in Qatar. “It was slightly better… I worked in different households. But everywhere you face sexual harassment. In the household, when you go out with the driver. Babas asking for massages. You have to be smart and resourceful to escape all this, but you don’t always succeed.”
“And the men in the house, every chance they get, they show their ‘pee pee.’ Absolutely no peace of mind. Can’t even sleep,” says Peris, who worked in Dubai.
Atieno, 26, went to work in Tabuk in 2018 but had to escape after three months. “Though the household was small, the man kept trying to sleep with me, was sexually harassing me. When I told the wife she got so angry she beat me and didn’t give me food. How is it my fault?”
Afraid the situation would continue to escalate, she managed to go to the police and contact the Kenyan embassy with the help of her friends.
“I had friends who helped and guided me. But many don’t have that support. They even kill themselves in desperation. In that house, the husband was molesting me. I screamed and he beat me. He did bad things. When I wanted to file a police complaint I was told it was expensive, so I did not. I already have a child I am struggling to take care of, and when that man did things to me I was scared of pregnancy. And even more scared of being killed. I am still dealing with what I went through.”
At the detention centre, you are raped… if you become pregnant they try to send you back quickly. If you have a child there you are stuck.
“You sleep with dead bodies; the detention centre is a brothel”
Vinne, a single mother who now works with other victims of abuse, listens to the group of women she brought together to share their stories (see Sisterhood of Survivors). She chips in with her views every now and then but watches closely as others grapple to say what they wish. Her voice is low, belying only briefly the feistiness within. Once the group disperses, she takes a seat to share her story.
“I grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. I was 24 and an agency offered me a job in 2014. I didn’t have to pay a single cent. I was supposed to go to Dubai via Mombasa and was told I will be paid KES35000 (US$295). I ended up in Saudi. The thing is, your business with agents ends the minute you depart the country.”
After three days at the Jeddah airport, her boss picked her up. “It was a big house, and the work hours were long. The language was a challenge. There was another Kenyan working there too.”
The work she could manage, but the overtures from the men of the household was a different challenge.
“The man and his sons were sexually harassing me all the time. I complained to the madam but she wouldn’t believe me. I was threatened at gunpoint by the men. One day they were all out, and the eldest son attempted to rape me. We fought. I hit him with a heavy object I found near me. When madam returned the son complained and said he wanted me out of the house. But they kept me and the harassment continued daily.”
Four months later Vinne decided to escape. She took the opportunity to throw the garbage out to run away, along with the household’s other worker, Martha. Martha was caught. Vinne kept running until she ran into a man who offered to help her, and took her to a detention centre in the Al Rehab district of Jeddah.
“There, I regretted running away. Because that is where you saw people dying every day. You just see that, and there’s nothing you can do. You even sleep with dead bodies next to you. And there’s not enough food. No one cares.”
“These security guys want to have sex with you. In Saudi, it is so hard for men to interact with women because it is against their culture also, so this is the opportunity they get to sexually harass you and you are helpless and you can’t do anything. I became so sick. I was in the centre for two months and got pregnant due to sexual harassment.”
She says the embassy never came to her aid in the centre. When her family complained in Kenya, they said they couldn’t trace her. “I can’t forget that centre. People were dying. Fighting for food. Being raped. And no one to help us.”
Vinne recalls men coming to the shelter/centre and raping the inmates. “It’s just like a brothel, if you want to sleep with anyone this was your centre.”
She believes she was deported quickly because she got pregnant.
“When I returned to Kenya I was in the hospital in Kenyatta for four months, then was connected to the organisation Kudeha who helped me. They gave me support. Connected me to other organisations. My son is 6 years old now. In school. He does not even have an origin. I don’t know who his father was.”
Panadol is the fix. You can be dying, and they will give you panadol. However ill you are, you are not worth more than a strip of panadol.
Burdened with work and panadol as a panacea
Feith (31) went to Saudi just before the pandemic hit, in December 2019, the same time as her friend Celestine. She landed in Dammam and was taken to Arar, a city in the northern part of the Kingdom near the Iraq border.
She had to undergo a 14-day pre-departure training course and obtain a good conduct certificate in order to migrate. “The minute you land everything you were trained for vanishes. You are ‘dumb’ the first day.” It doesn’t help that the workers are given little to no time to acclimate to their new environment and are expected to hit the ground running as soon as they arrive. And the good conduct certificate means nought, as the employer’s conduct remains unchecked.
“The work hours were so long, and you had to survive on leftover food. My contract said I would be working for a family of four, but I lost count of the number I saw there. There were five families. My boss, his family, his mother, brother, mother-in-law… Another worker came the next year. We both still worked 17-18 hours. And we had to cook for their catering business,” recounts Feith.
While she was paid monthly, everything else about the job was taxing on her physically and mentally. With the first salary, she bought a phone and hid it. “When they first checked they saw I had two phones, they expect you to have two. So I made sure I had another.” That foresight would stand her in good stead when things went south.
“Every time we fell sick we were given Panadol. Once I was so ill I could not stand. There was severe pain here,” she says indicating the right hip which to date poses a problem. She tried contacting the agent in Kenya to no avail. Finally, on the fourth day of excruciating pain, she was taken to the hospital. “I told the doctor about my pain, they wanted me to do a scan the next day, before treating, and told my boss too. But they took me home and got me a strip of Panadol. I wanted to rest, but they made me cook for the catering business they ran.”
The following day Feith had to go to the hospital again for a blood and urine test, and once again, she was not allowed to wait to get the scan done. She had to go back home to cook for the catering clients.
“If you complain you get beaten.” Feith had posted on Facebook three days earlier about being ill. There were suggestions that she should run away as a last resort. The next day after preparing the morning meals, she made a dash. “I took my phone and put it inside my panty, took my blanket, and ran from the house. It was 12 noon. I walked in the heat, all the signs were in Arabic. One old man who saw me asked ‘binti (daughter), where are you going?’ He gave me water and called the police who came immediately. I had only my contract, but no passport or ID.”
The police called her employer and instructed them to bring her passport and iqama, took copies, and asked them to take her to the hospital or to the agency office. When they took her back home, Feith assumed it was to take her things and put her on a bus to the office in Hafar Al Batin, which was 12 hours from Arar by bus.
“But Baba demanded my phones and beat me up so severely. He said, ‘no police, no office, no hospital, the doctor said you are ok.’ They forced me to go cook.”
While she was cooking, the employer started ranting at her again, looming over her from behind – ‘You are here to work not to be sick. In Saudi, there is no sickness. I buy you, you are my property.’ As Feith turned to speak to him, he picked up the kettle of hot water and poured it on her.
“I felt nothing, they burnt my right arm. I was numb. I was doing everything and yet I was being treated badly. I went to the bathroom and took out my secret phone, took a photo of my arm and sent it to my husband. He sent it to the agency, who sent it to the office in Saudi. And they sent the photo to my boss. I told the other Kenyan in the house if I die, tell people. She was new.”
The employer threatened her with a gun and made her record a video statement saying he did not hurt her and it was an accident. The wife warned her not to change her statement. She was later sent to the office, where she was given three options. Work and finish the contract, work for another house, or to pay for a flight and go home. Seeing no reprieve, Feith attempted to run again. She ran by a Red Crescent tent and received some help, but the police returned her to the office again, asking them to resolve her case. “I didn’t get any medical help for my hand. There were some Ugandan women there who tried helping me and said my hand will rot at this rate. That’s when I posted videos on social media, and good samaritans raised money to send me home.”
When Feith arrived in Kenya, it was to an empty home, only to discover the money she had remitted had been spent by her husband, who had taken another wife.
When you run away, take nothing with you. Even if you are going to the police, take nothing. Nothing at all. If not they will accuse you of stealing.
Policing the victims – the weak arm of the law
Like Feith, many of the other women also attempt to seek help from the police. Time and time again, they are sent back to abusive households. Peris,45, who decided to go abroad to make ends meet and put her kids through school after her husband lost his job. She connected with an agent, packed her bags and bid farewell to her family. “I had to do my paperwork and training so I borrowed money from well-wishers and went to Nairobi from Mombasa. I cleared the medical and soon after was put on a flight to Dubai.”
Peris was promised a salary of AED600 (US$165) and that she would work for a small family. She even had a call with her would-be employer. “She said she had two small kids and was pregnant so needed help. I was scared as you hear such bad stories. Speaking to her, I was reassured.”
As soon as she landed in Dubai, the employer took her passport. “You say goodbye to your passport then, you won’t see it again. You have to be prepared for that.”
The surprise didn’t end there. “When I went to the house it was a big family, a big house. I don’t think it was the house of the same lady I spoke to. You don’t work for one family… I was made to work in three houses, all relatives. Taking care of old people too. I worked late into the night.”
She snorts when asked about work hours. “No working hours. No off. You work until the work is done. And the work is never done. You wash utensils for hours and you can barely stand. They just give Panadol if you feel sick. And all you get are leftovers – you eat what remains after they’ve eaten.”
Peris slept on the floor in the same room as the old parents. “They would tap me to wake me up and I had to take the old lady to the toilet. I was on call even through the night. If you complain they say, ‘Africans don’t get tired, Africans are strong’.” [listen]
Unlike her compatriots, Peris didn’t know to hide a spare phone, so she was dependent on the employer to communicate with her family. “Once in two months, they allowed me to call. They would stand right next to me, insist I speak only in English and keep saying ‘Not in your language’.”
Stuck in the homes of her employers, and working in multiple households, she asked to return home after a few months. “They refused to let me return saying they had paid a lot of money to get me. I worked for 8-9 months. Finally one day I ran away. I had nothing on me. I wanted to go to the police. I didn’t even know the name of the family.”
The police checked her records and found out the details of her employer. After a week the family came, spoke in Arabic with the police, and took her back. The police asked her to finish the contract before returning.
“They kept shouting at me, but thank god they didn’t beat me. They said I can’t go anywhere. At the police station, I said I will not work three houses even if they kill me. They just said ‘yalla, yalla’ and sent me back home.”
Once she went back to the employer’s home, Peris stood her ground and refused to work in other homes.
At the police station, she was told if she ran away she would disappear because the family had paid a lot of money for her. “When I asked to be taken to my embassy, they said it wasn’t the rule of their country. When you actually gather courage and manage to run, they still return you to the family? So I fight in my own way. I screamed, rolled (on the floor), and refused to do work. These were my ways of coping.”
Peris continued to work for almost two years until she fell so ill the family sent her back home. “I know what I saw and went through. I don’t wish that for my worst enemy. Tea and bread are all I got to eat. I would just eat what I can while cleaning. I read of people being raped or killed and I thank god nothing like that happened to me. Still, I went through a lot, because you will do anything as a mother to help your children go to school.”
Francina, 37, went to Dammam in 2019. Her workday, like most other domestic workers, stretched from before dawn to after midnight, and it was a huge house with six members. “The treatment during the first three months was not so bad”, she says. “But they would refer to me as khadama and shagala (servant).”
The children she was taking care of started beating her up. “I complained to the mother, she just said kids are mentally ill, so adjust. They were 18, 16, 13 and 4 years old. I tried withstanding all this. There was support from other Kenyan domestic workers on WhatsApp groups.”
She worked for a year and nine months, and her health kept deteriorating. “I tried using the hotline, but the police just called the boss…they have no power over them.” As a last resort, she stopped working and insisted on being taken to the agency. She stayed for another two months there. “So many youngsters in the office there. Domestic workers who run away, with even worse stories. We were made to sleep on the floor. We had to pay for our own food. And all the while the agency made them go work in multiple homes.” Finally, with the help of a Kenyan NGO, she returned home.
Lydia, who worked in Sakaka, Saudi, says “If there is rape, you can’t complain. No one can share. No action is taken. If your boss impregnates you they try to send you back quickly. Once you have a child in the detention centre you are stuck. Can’t go back. No one is imprisoned for rape. Even when there is evidence of children. If you are beaten, no action against the abuser. When you are not paid, no action against the employer. End of the day, you have no rights. Be it at home, immigration, labour office, police station, office or embassy. They are all in collaboration to force people to work and not help them.”
Dehumanised and a diet of black tea with kubooz
From the get-go, Eva’s Saudi experience was fraught with disrespect and disregard. “When my boss picked me up at the airport, the first thing he said was either remove my braid or cut my hair.” (She had braided her hair fresh just before she left Kenya.) She stayed in the store room and worked in a huge house where 12 people lived. “I had to steal food and eat hiding. They gave black tea and kubooz,” she says, with a distaste echoed by many of the other women who were on a diet of tea and bread. She was trapped inside the house and would sneak off to the verandah for her only glimpse of the world outside.
Eva had to work at the employer’s home, his mother’s place, and also the farmhouse they had in the village. After about seven months, she fell very ill and was taken to the hospital. “The nurse asked mamma if they gave me food and rest. They lied and said yes. The nurse said I won’t survive like this, but mamma threw the medicines they gave me in the dustbin.”
Unable to continue working, she pleaded with her boss and was allowed to return to Kenya. She paid for her own way back, and did not receive all the dues she’s owed for her work.
Lydia, 34, says while the agency in Arar gave her passport and contract, it was taken away when she reached the sponsor’s home. She lasted just a month there.
“I was allowed to sleep only for 2-3 hours in the morning. No rest at all. You are recruited to work in one house, then they send you to their parents’ and other relatives’ homes to work there too. I had to strike and refuse to work. They really do not respect you at all. The minute you sit down for a rare meal, usually tea and kubooz, they will call you. Make you work more.”
When she complained, the agency sent a driver to take her to the office where she stayed for two months. “They won’t send you back home. They will find another sponsor. My first sponsor found another sponsor and they got a refund. I was treated well in the second house though a very big family. Then madam got pregnant and things got worse. I had to work from 9 am to midnight.” After 11 months she wanted to leave but was ‘sold’ to a broker.
“A woman called Fauzia. When they didn’t send me back to the office, I alerted my family. Fauzia used me for piece work. One week here, two days there…I told her I don’t think this is legal and that she was a stranger. She realised I was intelligent. She sold me to another house. I worked there for 10 months. Five members, but they made me work in other houses.”
Having spent close to two years in Saudi, Lydia was looking for an out. Her health had deteriorated, and the employers were reluctant to take her to the hospital. Neither the agency nor the embassy responded to her call for help.
“I opted to run to the police. When you run, run with nothing, so you are not accused of theft. The police demanded I show my iqama. I only had a copy. The second sponsor’s ID and details were different. I had moved so many homes…they said my fingerprints were missing in the system. The police called the office. They took me to Sakaka. They couldn’t ascertain my ID.”
She stayed in the office for seven months, three without work. The office refused to release her to the embassy.
At the end of her tether, Lydia took to social media.
“I went to the labour office too. I was fed up. The office, Al Faisal for Recruitment, was treating all of us so badly. Beating us when we refuse to go work elsewhere. I exposed them on Facebook. There were 30 of us from different countries. Even those who finished their contract were being forced to continue.”
Meanwhile, she tried making sense of the bureaucracy.
“They kept telling me my papers were in the labour office but when I went there it wasn’t there. One day I went and met a captain who was sympathetic. They helped me get my ticket and leave. I had my documents on my phone. I wasn’t a runaway. I knew my rights. Not everyone does. But after I exposed the office other women got help too. There was so much mental torture, but I was willing to fight. I expected the embassy to come to my aid, but they did not. The Saudi office was angry I was posting online. The Kenya office is still mad at me.”
She knew her activism came at a cost. “If you are outspoken, you become a danger to these people. I was punished for being outspoken. Others in the office were allowed to leave, but mine was delayed. Before that, I was in the Sakaka detention centre for one month before going to the office. You are at the mercy of the police and the labour officials.”
You can die working or you can die trying to escape. Choose the latter.
Families grapple with uncertainty
Zubeida sits by a dilapidated building near an old railway station in Mirtini, a suburb of Mombasa. She is frantic as her daughter Mona, 24, is stuck in Dubai and her employer is refusing to let her return.
Mona went to Dubai two years ago and was promised a salary of KES300,000. She hasn’t been paid in five months. Though the employer’s family is not big, there is a constant stream of visitors. Her visa was renewed without her consent, and now the employer is demanding compensation to let her go.
“She ran away to the police, but they returned her to the boss. Boss said he had paid for her visa, so not letting her go. She went back to the police after 4-5 months. They are so angry with her that she went to the police. So now they don’t give her salary, and sometimes no food even.”
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the family is asking her to wait and not run again, fearing she may disappear or land in more trouble.
“I want my child to come back,” pleads Zubeida.
There’s a similar plea from Abbas Omar, wanting his wife back home.
In early May, at the Mombasa office of Haki Africa, an NGO, Omar has been waiting for hours, since 8 am. He has been holding vigil here for several days, hoping the agent who sent his wife Fatima, 38, to Saudi will come to speak to him. Fatima had gone to Jeddah in January this year. She worked for two months but could not continue. Playing her WhatsApp voice notes, Omar says she was being overworked and verbally abused. “The house has three floors and she has to do all the work. And she worked till 3 am and had to be up at 6 am again. And they shout at her all the time. They give her food but keep saying she eats but does no work. It’s mental torture.”
She was returned to the agent after two months, but she is not able to come back to Kenya. “Yousuf (the agent) committed to send her and help her if she is in trouble. Now he does not answer my calls.”
This brings Omar to the NGO Haki Africa, which has been active in advocating for detained and stranded Kenyans and helping with their return. A case officer there says the agent claims the delay in return is due to Ramadan.
Omar plays his wife’s voice notes on repeat. “Now in the agency they give food only once a day and nothing at all the first few days. Just water. Listen, she is crying in these messages that she will die.” He is willing to raise money for her ticket but is lost as to why there has been such a delay.
The case officer says that the embassy staff at the destination do not cooperate. “Unfortunately, they see us as the enemy. Kenyans are kept in detention for long. Embassy not proactive at all. In most cases victims claim neglect. Sometimes they spend even a year in detention centres. With other nationalities, resolution seems quick. On average, it takes 4-5 months to return a Kenyan worker.”
“There’s no passport confiscation in Saudi” – Agent
Later in the afternoon, Yousuf the agent makes an appearance. “I didn’t answer his call because he didn’t know how to talk,” he snaps, refusing to make eye contact with Omar.
“They (workers and their family) don’t understand it’s not easy to just leave there and come back. There are so many processes. A lot of money has been invested. We pay for everything: training, birth certificate, passports.”
He insists things have changed for real in Saudi. “There’s no passport confiscation now. Musaned has changed everything. It keeps track of all parties. Workers and employers and agents are all registered in the system before they leave home. Should be there in other Gulf countries too because we have problems there.” He adds that Qatar and UAE give ‘too much freedom’ to women and the Kenyan workers misuse it.
He is unrelenting in blaming the workers for refusing to adjust. “Before they go we tell them it is not a holiday. They are going there to work. Just do that and come back. They want to leave for small things.”
Pointing to Omar he says, “I tried convincing her to work. How can we spend so much and they just come back? For small issues. We asked her to change jobs, but she has pressure from her husband who doesn’t want to take care of kids.”
The two men exchange angry looks as the case officer steps in to resolve the issue and talk about Fatima’s return.
Yousuf is not done. “It is such a long process to be trafficked…I mean to migrate, how can they just return? Women think they are going for a ride there and want to come back immediately. We need punitive methods for them.”
Footnote: The report was made possible with the help of several organisations in Kenya which work closely with migrant workers in distress. Their contact details are available on our resources page: https://www.migrant-rights.org/resources/
Laws in principle vs in practice and all the pitfalls in between
At 2.15 million square kilometres, Saudi is the largest country in western Asia and the 13th largest in the world. Close to 40% of its 34 million population are migrants. Of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers worldwide, of whom 27.4 % are in the Arab states. Saudi accounts for the single largest population of migrant domestic workers at 3.7 million.
Yet, this group is excluded from the Kingdom’s labour law protections and the few recent reforms.. The main regulations that apply to domestic workers are:
- Ministerial Decision No. 310 of 1434 on domestic work (known commonly as the domestic work regulations); and
- Ministerial Decision No. 605 of 1438 permitting domestic workers to transfer between employers in certain circumstances.
As per these regulations, the employer is obliged to provide proper food and medical care, and the employer is prohibited from employing a domestic worker outside the employer’s household. The worker is entitled to a paid day off, and a minimum of 9 hours of rest a day. Under the anti-trafficking law of 2009, the employer must not “threaten, defraud, deceive or abduct a worker” or take advantage of a worker’s vulnerability to coerce to consent for the purpose of sexual assault, forced labour, or servitude.
Passport confiscation, wage theft, and forcing a worker to do uncontracted jobs are all indicators of human trafficking, according to Mohammed Al Masri, the secretary general of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, an affiliate of the Saudi Human Rights Commission. The penalties include up to 15 years in prison or a maximum fine of SAR1 million, or both. Yet, these practices are rampant and go unchecked, with little evidence that employers have been booked under the anti-trafficking law.
Workers’ testimonies indicate large-scale violations of these laws and insufficient mechanisms to address these issues.
Access to justice continues to be a major concern, as highlighted in our previous report. The Musaned system, introduced in 2014, was supposed to address some of the issues faced by migrant domestic workers. However, MR’s analysis found that “Musaned is a Saudi initiative concerned with the last legs of the recruitment relay – it does not, and practically cannot, reach as far back as the middlemen, brokers, and other stakeholders that migrant workers and employers encounter before they reach registered agencies in their own countries.”
Even though governments of countries of origin and recruitment agents have access to the system, it only enables access to records and does not directly enhance accountability. “The platform lacks a complaints mechanism for workers, relegating disputes to the existing – and weak – Ministry of Labour and Social Development’s (MLSD) resolution system. Making these records reliably actionable remains a difficult endeavour and one that workers cannot realistically pursue on their own.”
Technically, the system is supposed to make it easier to locate domestic workers, however, with workers being sold internally and put to work in multiple households outside of the main sponsor’s home, traceability also remains an issue.
*Some names have been changed, and only first names have been used in other instances
This article was first published by Migrant Rights.
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